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Normandy, France
June 23, 1944 - July 24, 1944



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First Blood at Villiers Fossard

The initial action of division forces was in that flat, jungle-like terrain before St. Lo. Here, the lush foliage of early summer made visibility almost negligible, and the high, earthbound hedgerow partitions between each small Normandy field made Jerry defenses simple and allied attack a nightmare. Artillery observation was denied the enemy, but he had carefully zeroed all crossroads and highways in the zone of American activity. The Kraut had plenty of field guns and he used them ceaselessly.

In the rough bocage country before St. Lo, the 29th Infantry Division, grimy and tired after long fighting, was alternately pushing the attack and holding against strong German counter blows. A salient had developed around the little village of Villiers Fossard, and here, at 0900, on June 29, 1944, Combat Command "A" was committed.

The fight for Villiers Fossard was not important as such, but it was a baptism of fire for 3rd Armored Division personnel, and therefore noteworthy. It gave these well trained men the sudden shocking plunge into action which must come to all soldiers soon or late; the introduction to combat which, no matter how terrifying, is a necessary climax to the long months of drill and instruction.

Men of the 3rd learned quickly that there is no glory in combat, that death strikes friend and foe alike, and that victory often comes at an exorbitant price. For the first time, men of the division heard that spine-chilling shriek of "incoming mail," the bell-like crash of a close hit, and the sudden, horrifying screams of stricken men before the dust and debris has settled. They saw death in its most violent form, and they smelled the sick-sweet and terrifying scent of battle, of cordite, and decomposition, the fresh, green smell of crushed shrubbery, and the pungent odor of flame.

The line soldiers of the 36th Arrnored Infantry, of the 32nd Armored Regiment, the 23rd Armored Engineer Battalion, and of those other units attached to General Hickey's command, still ducked at the sound of their own shells passing overhead, but they learned fast. Lt. Colonel Nathaniel O. Whitlaw, in command of the 2nd Battalion, 32nd Armored Regiment, wrote of the action: "We seemed to be stunned by the ferocity of the German small arms and mortar fire, but we collected our wits and advanced in the face of this fire, just as we thought that we would do, and showed little self-concern during the remainder of the battle. We pushed on to our objective like veterans. I am sure that these men will give great accounts of themselves in future battles."

The combat command, pushing out in two columns of task forces, under Colonel Truman E. Boudinot, and Colonel Graeme G. Parks, with a third force in reserve, commanded by Lt. Colonel Walter L. Abney, did take its objective, but losses were relatively high for such an action. Sgt. Lafayette Pool, later to become a "Spearhead" ace, lost his Sherman to a dug-in German bazookaman. He was one of many. Other tankers were green enough to attempt stopping for coffee while under enemy observation. Needless to say, they sustained casualties.

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The Infamous Hedgerows

"Blitz Doughs" of the 36th had trouble too; they discovered that frontal attack on hedgerow positions was suicide, and they learned the hard way. There weren't enough of the newly constructed tank-dozers, and every hedge-opening seemed to be zeroed by machine gun and anti-tank fire. The doughs evolved single squad tactics which saved men and produced results in dead and captured enemy.

For all of their natural mistakes, the objective was taken and depleted units came out of action to count losses, regroup, and prepare for further combat. By this time no one doubted that the enemy could fight, and fight hard. The Kraut was a veteran and he was a good soldier. Yanks admitted this much, but they never questioned the outcome of the affair. In late June, 1944, the Normandy battle front was a precarious line from Cherbourg to Caen. On every salient the enemy threatened to break through and overwhelm allied positions. Yet, division personnel, with all respect to the slugging, deceptive ability of their enemy, expected Jerry's ultimate defeat. The men made wise cracks about spending their Christmas holidays two hedgerows the other side of St. Lo, but that was just for the sake of a laugh when all the world was wet, muddy, and filled with the siren wail of 88's. Normandy was not conducive to complacency in the early stages of the campaign. Intermittent showers, mud, and German artillery concentrations were accepted as normal.

During those few days of grace after first blood at Villiers Fossard, the division refitted, added two-bladed dozer arrangements to a percentage of its Sherman tanks, and waited for orders. They came soon enough; both combat commands were attached to XIX Corps, with the objective an attack south.

On the night of July 7, Combat Command "B", led by Brigadier General John J. Bohn, crossed the Vire River at Airel, under heavy shell fire. Division MP's remained at their posts to direct traffic over the Vire bridge in a rain of explosives. The action which began here, was a baptism of fire for CC "B". Like Combat Command "A", there were casualties then, and later, but the units under General Bohn pushed on to their objectives and even managed to batter severely one of Germany's elite panzer divisions in the process.

At Font Hebert the fighting was intense. The 3rd Battalion of the 33rd Armored Regiment lost all of its command tanks, including that of Lt. Colonel Sam Hogan. But there were victories too; during their first fifteen minutes of combat, a tank crew commanded by Sgt. Dean Balderson knocked out three German Mark-IV's. Balderson pulled out of a small orchard at dawn, and his gunner, Cpl. "Swede" Anderson, immediately spotted the enemy. Four Kraut tanks were in position on the road ahead, their guns pointed in the opposite direction and evidently waiting for another company of the 3rd to advance.

Anderson's first round, an HE, caught the nearest Mark-IV flush on the turret, and things began to happen. The enemy tank blew up in a sudden gust of flame and black smoke! Immediately afterward the remaining Jerry vehicles were alert and moving. Excited, Anderson called for an armor piercing shell, but his loader, Pfc. Bill Wilson, threw in a second HE. This shell duplicated the first, and a second Mark-IV blew up. Wilson found an AP round for the third shot, and his gunner sent this projectile crashing through for number three. Three enemy battlewagons in less than fifteen minutes of combat! Sgt. Balderson and his crew decided that war was a soft snap. Another week of fighting convinced them that it was just the opposite.

In fact, Easy Company, attacked by Jerry infantry the night before, had sprayed the hedges, each other, and the sky in wild confusion. No one was hurt in the melee, but maintenance men, Sgt. Lewis W. Thomas, and Pvt. "Shotgun" Richards, looked rather sheepish when they discovered that they had been attacking one of their own Shermans with a .30 caliber machine gun.

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Battles at Haut Vents

The action around Haut Vents, Belle Lande, and Font Hebert, was devoid of humor and vicious to the extreme. Heavy mortar, machine gun, and shell fire assailed the troops under General Bohn. One of Colonel Dorranee S. Roysden's task forces, led by Lt. Colonel Rosewell H. King, was given the mission of taking Hill 91, or Haut Vents, on July 10. Unfortunately the force was small because of heavy losses in previous action, but regardless, King mustered six mediums and two light tanks for the attack.

The little task force took Haut Vents on the 10th, were driven back with heavy losses, and attacked again to reach the summit and hold the ground. Repeated enemy counterattacks failed to dislodge those few men who remained unscathed at the end of the fight. Here, in the face of heavy German artillery and mortar pounding, these elements of CC "B" held out for three days until finally contacted by advance patrols of the 30th Infantry Division. During that period they weathered some of the hottest action of the entire European campaign. Later, it was ascertained that CC "B" had been battling, in the Haut Vents, Belle Lande, and Pont Hebert areas, the Panzer LEHR division, which was reputed to be one of Germany's best armored units. Crack troops or no, the Panzer LEHR took a fearsome lacing from green GI's of the future "Spearhead" in this encounter.

In the meantime, Combat Command "A" under Brigadier General Hickey had made slow progress. In the area of St. Jean de Daye, men of the command fought bitter small scale actions against parachutists and SS panzer elements. CC "A" had occupied the terrain overlooking Le Desert, in which German forces were strongly entrenched. Here, a tank scare on July 11 upset division forward elements and caused some confusion. The counterattack was thrown back after enemy paratroopers worked into division positions under a hail of automatic fire and artillery air bursts. The 9th Infantry Division, already veterans of Normandy fighting, went into action with the 3rd here at St. Jean de Daye, and promptly set an example of cool efficiency under fire.

The troops of the "Spearhead" were still exceedingly green. There was still a tendency to duck at every foreign sound, and there was yet a wide misconception of battlefield operation. There was nothing basically wrong with the division; that had been proved in the fiery hell of Villiers Fossard and Haut Vents; but, in common with every American force new to combat, the 3rd had to assimilate front line knowledge and know-how. It had to get over the feeling that every shell was an 88, and it had to realize that no matter how much noise an automatic weapon makes, it is still so much scrap metal unless properly directed. The men of the 3rd had to learn these things, and they did. It wasn't long before the division could truly be termed veteran.

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Division Regroups

On July 16, both combat commands reverted to division control and moved into assembly areas west of St. Jean de Daye. Previously attached to XIX Corps, and for a very short period to V Corps, the 3rd was now a part of that crack assault force which it henceforth led in nearly every major drive of the First Army: the VII Corps, commanded by Major General J. Lawton Collins.

The new assembly areas were close to forward positions, but regrouping went on in spite of enemy shellfire and an occasional sweep by Jerry fighters. New equipment poured in from the floating docks at Isigny. Rations, ammunition, fuel, and other supplies were loaded on tanks, half-tracks and trucks of the combat commands and the trains. Overhead, in the grey, scud-blown skies, Thunderbolt and Mustang fighters patrolled the air. Occasional German reconnaissance flyers whipped over too. The big show was about to begin, and the enemy was nervous.

At St Jean de Daye, and Le Desert, the 3rd participated in those poison gas scares which ran up and down the Normandy beachhead areas on July 21 and 22, and which occasioned such mad scrambling for masks at the first long drawn out shouts of GAS! Unfamiliar odors of the battlefront were voted to be the reason for these panics, but enemy instigation was also suspected.

While waiting for wet weather to lift, the area was consistently subjected to strafing and bombing attacks, none of which were very effective. Usually, about dusk, after the last allied Thunderbolt had disappeared, the first Kraut fighters would whisk out of cloud cover and race over 3rd Armored Division bivouacs. Enemy bombers droned over the positions at night, dropping flares and anti-personnel bombs while ignoring the criss-cross pattern of tracer which always seemed short.

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Giant Air-Ground Operation

On the morning of July 26, the clouds seemed higher than usual, and broken. Presently a sweep of Mustangs appeared over the front, and then wave after wave of gigantic Fortress and Liberator bombers. It was H-Hour for the greatest combined air-ground operation in the history of modern warfare.

There was no mistaking the portent of those planes. This was the big push. The men of the armored regiments knew it, and the armored infantry - the artillery, the engineers, and tank destroyers of the commands. The men of the " Spearhead" gazed steadily at those vast fleets of Fortresses and Liberators, and they knew that the moment would be great in history. This was a prelude to battle such as the world had never seen. There was an awe-inspiring, hypnotic quality about it. Ernie Pyle, the doughboy's correspondent, wrote: "The flight across the sky was slow and studied. I've never known a storm, or a machine, or any resolve of man that had about it the aura of such a ghastly relentlessness. I had the feeling that even had God appeared beseechingly before them in the sky, with palms outstretched to persuade them back, they would not have had within them the power to turn their irresistible course. They stalked on, slowly, and with a dreadful pall of sound, as though they were seeing something at a great distance and nothing existed between. God, how we admired those men up there, and sickened for the ones who fell."

Soldiers of the 3rd Armored Division who were poised for the attack at St. Jean de Daye and Le Desert, felt that emotion, and wondered how any living thing could survive the rain of bombs. There were 1800 heavy bombardment machines, 400 mediums, and close to 700 fighter-bombers operating over a relatively small area on that fateful day in late July, 1944.

The front was moving even as the last air fleets turned for home. Up ahead, advancing over the churned and smoking earth of the target area, the 4th, 9th, and 30th Infantry Divisions drove into a disorganized enemy line along the St. Lo-Perriers road. Through a regretable miscalculation in defining the bomb line, several companies of jump-off infantry were badly cut up by explosives intended for the enemy; but all of the doughs went forward at H-Hour, and the greatest coordinated air-ground attack in history kicked off. On the following day, Major General J. Lawton Collins committed his exploitation force, the 2nd and 3rd Armored Divisions, closely followed, and in many cases led, by the veteran 1st Infantry. Operation COBRA had entered its critical stage.

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Breakout from Normandy

The great armored breakthrough out of Normandy was headline news all over the world. It was truly a turning point in history, for the allies had finally wrenched the initiative from their enemies and were on the high road to victory. Of course, the men who made that history never thought of it in such a light. Later, they recalled the swift lunge of armor in strangely disjointed, nightmare flashes of fear and emotion, of scenes indelibly printed upon their minds. The big picture to them was not grand strategy; it was the sniper in the hedgerow and the smell of death, the gentle hum of German warplanes overhead in the deep night; it was the space filling crash of direct fire, the burp guns and the artillery, and sweat and dust and mortal fear, all so mixed up and jumbled that they seemed a normal tapestry in the bitter days of all out action.

The men of the 3rd Armored Division fought night and day. They slept, whenever they might grab an hour or so of rest, in slit trenches, and they kept their helmets on. The concussion ghosts of the big guns dislodged dirt which slid down into these trenches during the fitful night, and the night itself was filled with the moan and whistle of "incoming mail." Shelled, mortared, raked with machine gun fire, and terribly fatigued by the pace of the constant assault, these men yet gave the enemy more steel than he could send. And they attacked. They rolled forward in blinding clouds of dust, eating cold rations while moving, and never letting up the pressure.

"Spearhead" men weren't interested in fame; they just wanted to kill the enemy and stay alive in that little sector which, for the moment, encompassed all of life and death. The stories that Americans read at their breakfast tables would have given these men a grim chuckle, and that is because it always seems so easy in print. You can use all the rhetoric in the world to describe a battle, and yet it comes nowhere near the graphic description afforded by a shell that screams suddenly and erupts in a heart-sickening crash nearby.

General Leroy H. Watson's "Spearhead" Division went out in multiple columns of task forces, CC "B" on July 2 6, and CC "A" on the 27th. Combat Command "B", led by its new commander, Colonel Truman E. Boudinot, paced the attack of the famed 1st Infantry Division at Marigny, then made a right turn and drove for the high ground around Monthuchon. Heavy opposition dogged the columns, but Boudinot's task forces slashed ahead. The 54th Armored Field Artillery Battalion, supporting the command with fire from its 105 mm self propelled guns, fought snipers, and beat off an attack by 30 rocket-firing Focke-Wulf 190 fighters.

Northeast of Coutances, and well behind enemy lines, division GI's began to see the French people who had become refugees in this furious hour of battle. They lined the roads for miles throwing flowers and greeting their American liberators.

After taking its initial objective, the combat command bypassed a second and clattered to within sight of Coutances. Here, while tankers and infantrymen planned to go forward and take this first relatively large city, an urgent order came to turn back and aid the 1st Infantry Division in reducing a strongpoint of enemy resistance.

Fortunately, Normandy was drying during the weeks of the breakthrough and exploitation; and, although the bocage country was not ideal for tank warfare, the armor stormed ahead. Those hedge-choppers, designed by division engineers, and installed by Maintenance Battalion, were an invaluable aid to close fighting - and most of the fighting was at close quarters. Tanks dueled at negligible range, and infantry fought it out with small arms and grenades. Jerry burp guns sounded as though they were in the next field, and usually they were! Almost always the combat commands had to fight their way into bivouac; then after digging foxholes and camouflaging the vehicles, there was usually a night of sporadic firing with automatic weapons and artillery. Men of the commands learned to love those deep Normandy drainage ditches and the high, earthbound hedgerows which bordered little, sunken roads. These places were a haven when German artillery poured high explosive into division positions. The enemy was not lacking in field artillery during the battle of Normandy, and his gunners were uncannily accurate.

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Close-Quarter Fighting

Close-quarter fighting was not reserved for the point elements alone. Near Marigny, Battery "B" of the 391st Armored Field Artillery Battalion participated in one of those free-for-all fights which seemed to be SOP in the bocage country. While firing a mission in support of Combat Command "B", the battery learned that a unit of the 4th Cavalry Squadron was bitterly engaged with enemy fanatics a few hundred yards away. The command of the battery was immediately turned over to a single non-commissioned officer and all available personnel went into the fight as infantry in order to aid the cavalrymen. While five of the six gun battery continued to fire support, the sixth was employed in direct laying against the hemmed in, and soon annihilated, fanatics.

Also in this area, Captain Philip Shaw, commander of Battery "B", 486th Armored Anti-Aircraft Battalion, and two of his men calmly placed charges of TNT on the bogey wheels of a Panther tank they found near their position at night. Then, when the crippled Panther began to rumble into action, Shaw killed its crew by tossing grenades into the open turret. One of the Nazi's, attacked by an American ack-ack soldier armed with an axe, shouted " Heil Hitler," and shot himself through the head rather than surrender!

While elements of CC "B" neared Coutances, General Doyle O. Hickey's Combat Command "A" was attacking south toward Montpinchon. His task forces faced heavier opposition than had those of Colonel Boudinot, because the enemy apparently had expected such a sweep. Enemy infantry, anti-tank guns, and the usual roving Panther tanks were a chief source of worry. At Cerisy la Salle, battle raged far into the night. German troops in the town fought a foot by foot withdrawal all afternoon and were given air support by the Luftwaffe as soon as darkness settled over the area and the last P-47 had gone home to roost. The sky over Cerisy la Salle was filled with pyrotechnics that night as Service Company crews brought up their vital loads of gasoline and ammunition for the front line. One of the attacking Ju-88's received a direct hit and came careening down the dark heavens like a falling firebrand. The occasion was a morale booster to men who had been dreading the wail and crunch of antipersonnel bombs.

The fight at Cerisy la Salle flowed into that larger operation which had to do with the taking of Montpinchon. But pressure exerted here by CC "A", together with that of other armored columns to the east and west, forced German panzer columns below Roncey. At this point, the 2nd Armored Division cut the escape gap at St. Denis Ie Gast, and Jerry was trapped hopelessly. American fighter bombers, finding the enemy's vehicles travelling bumper to bumper on the narrow Normandy road nets, strafed and bombed the convoys relentlessly. All along the battlefront on July 29, a greasy black pall of smoke marked Nazi retreat and destruction. When the wholesale slaughter was over, and the Thunderbolts had finished their work, a single CC "A" battle group moved into battered Montpinchon and mopped up the last disorganized enemy resistance.

If Jerry hated our "Jabo's" because they were deadly, men of the 3rd Armored Division loved them well. These chunky little fighters seemed to be a part of the armored striking force. It was a constant source of satisfaction to see them slant down in those long, beautiful dives. You'd see the thin line of smoke which told of hammering machine guns, and then, while "Blitz Doughs" held their breath in suspense, the fly boys would release bombs and slant up into the blue again.

The Thunderbolts ruled Normandy skies in daylight, but at dusk Hitler's Luftwaffe took over. Kraut bombers rode herd on division columns from sunset to dawn and, in isolated cases, inflicted casualties by strafing and bombing attacks. Service Company of the 32nd Armored Regiment suffered losses one evening when machine guns in an adjoining field opened up on a circling Ju-88 and disclosed the position. The German dropped a number of antipersonnel bombs, killing one man and wounding five.

Frequently, for no sensible reason, the Kraut fliers seemed to keep division spearheads under surveillance without attempting to bomb or strafe. On the longer Normandy night drives it was not unusual to have a dozen or more enemy airplanes dropping flares at spaced intervals along the route.

In the white heat of battle, the 3rd Armored Division had begun to find itself as a great fighting force. The division was still green, still learning - but the esprit de corps was there, and a characteristic drive which, in days to come, was to be the hallmark of the "Spearhead" Division, General "Lightning Joe" Collins' cutting edge of power.

The men of the fighting commands were well trained and alert. They needed only those flaming days in Normandy to supply the need of experience. And the division had excellent leaders too; some of them were already making a name for the command in this early stage of the fighting.

Chapter Index

A Combat Command Show

The entire operation from the breakthrough to the reaching of the Mayenne River was, from an operational standpoint, a combat command show. This fact was beautifully illustrated by the action of Combat Command "A" which, on July 29, was ordered to turn south and seize a crossing of the Siene River, at Gavray. Here, leadership asserted itself when Lt. Colonel Leander L. Doan, the tall, loose jointed Texas tanker led his assault infantrymen of the 36th across the stream on foot under fire, to secure a bridgehead. This was the first of many such exploits which made Doan a historic commander of the 3rd Armored Division. His Task Force "X" was already assuming an aura of dash and daring in the business of all out attack.

So fast was the advance thereafter that, at Brecey, the speeding combat command caught German troops lolling under shade trees, drinking wine. This was a pleasure which tommy-gun fire and grenades quickly terminated. Brecey, however, was the scene of more vicious fighting later. Company "A" of the 703rd Tank Destroyer Battalion found that the town had been reoccupied after the lead elements of CC "A" passed through. With their three-inch guns, the TD men thoroughly wrecked the little town and again routed its garrison.

Also in the vicinity of Brecey, an anti-tank platoon of the 36th Armored Infantry Regiment set off pyrotechnics when a loaded German ammunition truck ran into one of their mine fields during the night. The resultant explosion could be seen for miles.

After crossing the See River, just south of Brecey, on August 1, CC "A" arrowed for Mortain, the new objective. The task forces were now well inside enemy lines and moving swiftly. German service troops and re-forming combat elements were surprised and decimated or taken prisoner. The tanks of the 32nd Armored Regiment made spectacular gains and the roads of conquest were littered with smashed and burning vehicles of the Wehrmacht.

This Roman holiday ceased abruptly at Juvigny Ie Tertre and Reffuvieille. Here, task forces of Combat Command "A" fought heavy engagements with well organized Nazi units. The columns drove through a sparkling rain of tracer bullets to reach Mortain on August 2. Strong points were established at St. Barthelemy, just north of the city, and at Romagny, to the southwest. Juvigny Ie Tertre was taken after a vicious fire fight and troops of CC "A" remained static in this area for two days while German units, well supported by artillery, attempted to take high ground around Juvigny. It had previously been announced that this would be a rest period but, as one soldier commented: " If this is a rest period - then I want to fight!"

A further advance was made on August 5, when Task Force "X", under Lt. Colonel Doan, set out for Le Teilleul. A smaller force joined the 2nd Armored Division at Barenton, and did not rejoin the command until August 12-13.

At Barenton, this 3rd Armored Division battle group broke up a determined German counter-attack which was launched under cover of fog at dawn on August 10. Every available machine-gun was brought forward and put into action. It was an eerie, wicked battle there in the half light of morning, but after the enemy had been beaten off, a spot check showed that he had lost 65 dead, plus a number of wounded and prisoners.

On August 6, Task Force "X" set out with the objective of reaching Ambrieres Le Grand, on the Mayenne River. The task force reached its objective for the day by 0830 hours. Considerable fighting was necessary to clear Ambrieres Le Grand of the enemy, but the bridge was seized quickly, permitting 1st Infantry Division troops to push on across and establish a bridgehead on the east side of the Varenne River, which was west of the Mayenne. On the following day, Colonel Walter B. Richardson's task force moved into positions around St. Mars sur Colmont. This maneuver practically completed Combat Command "A" activities west of the Mayenne River, excepting for an outposting operation at Gorron. Troops of the command rested, refitted, and went swimming. They made friends with the local mademoiselles, and drank a great deal of calvados, that drink which was reputed to be made of "ground-up hand grenades."

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Battles at Mortain

Back in the Mortain sector, CC "B" soldiers were not so fortunate.

General Boudinot's tankers and infantrymen had been attached to the 4th Infantry Division during the attack on high ground east of Villedieu les Poeles, on August 1. Ordered to cross the See River and move south of the little town of Cuves, elements of "B" were heavily engaged by crack units of the Wehrmacht. Tankers of the 33rd Armored Regiment, plus the 36th Armored Infantry "Blitz Doughs", the 83rd Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, and all of the other units which made up the command, continued to batter through this resistance to reach the objective on August 4. Of the prisoners taken, many were slant eyed Mongolians from the outer fringes of Russia. These were former Red Army soldiers who had been starved into the submission of serving in the Germany army. Most of these men were perfectly willing to give information which was of benefit to the attacking Americans.

On August 6, weary of combat and in dire need of maintenance, refitting and rest, the combat command was ordered to an area near Reffuvieille. The Red Cross Clubmobile was ordered, and dirty men prepared to wash their bodies and their clothing in nearby streams. Deaf from concussion of the guns, sick of the sight and stench of battle, this promised pause was on oasis to which all personnel looked forward. Unfortunately it turned out to be a mirage.

There was no maintenance, no rest, no clubmobile, and no baths. An urgent message came crackling down the lines of communication and bone-tired tankers clambered back into the bucket seats of their steel fighting machines.

During the morning hours of August 7, the German high command in Normandy launched the great counter attack which was intended to cut allied lines by reaching the sea at Avranches. Had this operation succeeded, the American Third Army's supply lines would have been severed and Patton's free-wheeling tankers trapped before they could begin to execute the big sweeping drives through Brittany. In a way, this was to be the first grueling test of the American ability to meet and smash a well coordinated counter attack.

The main German blow, which was chiefly armor supported by panzer grenadiers and heavy concentrations of artillery, hit the 30th Infantry Division. The enemy managed to isolate a battalion of doughboys on a hill just east of Mortain while occupying that city. The situation was desperate enough to warrant a swift redeployment of available U. S. armor.

On August 7, therefore, Combat Command "B" was attached to the 30th Infantry Division in order to aid in repelling the serious breakthrough attempt. Extremely heavy fighting developed around Le Mesnil Adelee, Le Mesnil Tove, and the surrounding area. For five consecutive days the fighting swayed back and forth. The command was shelled, bombed, attacked by infantry and tanks. The intensity of the attack is perhaps best illustrated by a notation in the official report for August 9:

"At 1145 Task Force 1 (Colonel Dorrance S. Roysdon) was bracketed by rounds not over 100 yards apart. Expected enemy fire began falling around noon. Artillery officers estimated size from shell fragment to be 150 mm. Lt. Colonel Rosewell King's command half-track exploded. An attempt was made to move Colonel Roysdon's CP. A shell immediately struck the halftrack, wounding an officer and cutting through the side of the vehicle so that it looked like a sieve. One burst went through the radio. There was a tree burst over the Colonel's tank; then a round landed right by the front sprocket. Colonel Roysdon and his staff were underneath the tank. Heavy shelling continued until 1600."

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Division Pays a Price

German commanders were using a number of crack panzer units in the breakthrough attempt, but although they gained ground initially, the counter attack was a failure. Troops of Combat Command "B" found that the terrain around Le Mesnil Adelee and Le Mesnil Tove was not suitable for tank warfare, but that was no revelation after a month of cracking stubborn hedgerow positions in Normandy. The command took part in the most bitter engagements of the battle and suffered relatively heavy casualties, but General Boudinot's men held their ground against far superior numbers in counterattack after counter attack. An indication of this operation's violence may be gauged by the fact that Service Company of the 33rd Armored Regiment processed 41 replacement vehicles and more then 60 work orders during the short five day period of action. General Boudinot's fighting men had contributed much toward the halting of the German Avranches drive. Part of the 30th Infantry Division, to which CC "B" had been attached, later received a Distinguished Unit Citation for the battle.

By August 12, German forces had been thoroughly beaten back at Mortain and another turning point of the war in the west had been reached. Von Kluge's Seventh Army was retreating under heavy aerial attack, and the Normandy campaign appeared to be a complete allied success. The 3rd Armored Division closed into an assembly area west of Mayenne, where supply, maintenance, and rest prepared it for the next great armored drive.

Now the men of the 3rd Armored Division were quiet soldiers, weathered and squint eyed from the acrid dust of battle. They were schooled in the subtleties of war, their bodies toughened to the sun and the rain and the constant grind of the attack. They were tough, and they knew it. Death was no stranger. Fear was still tangible, but it was honest fear - not the unreasonable panic of those first hours when a man could not distinguish between his own and the enemy's shell fire. It had been a bitter training, but now the " Spearhead" was a crack team.

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Argentan-Falaise Pocket

Major General Maurice Rose, then a brigadier, had assumed command on August 7, relieving Major General Leroy H. Watson. Rose, a former combat command leader of the 2nd Armored Division, was an accomplished tanker and strategist. He surveyed the division and found that it was not lacking in either training, experience or leadership.

The cry was "On to Paris," but the men of the 3rd found a more important mission for their arms. British forces, driving south from Caen, and American First Army elements, smashing in an easterly direction, had trapped a sizeable part of Field Marshal von Kluge's Seventh Army in the Argentan-Falaise pocket. The 3rd Armored Division was ordered to drive deep into this Nazi cauldron of elite units in an attempt to close the escape gap.

On August 13, the 83rd Armored Reconnaissance Battalion led division elements out of the Mayenne area on an axis of advance which touched Mayenne, Pre-en-Pail, Carrouges, Ranes, and Fromentel.

General Doyle O. Hickey's Combat Command "A" was chosen to lead the attack with two parallel columns of task forces - "X", commanded by Colorel Doan, on the south, and "Y", commanded by Colonel Richardson, on the north. Initially, these long, armored spearheads rolled forward without opposition. Crowds of cheering French civilians stood in the brilliant sunshine to throw flowers and offer cognac to dust-begrimed tankers. There was no artillery fire and the sky belonged to the veering Thunderbolts. It was hard to realize that, within hours, the entire combat command would be fighting desperately for its very existence.

At Couptrain and Javron the first opposition began to slow free-wheeling task forces. But not for long; the orders were to bypass resistance wherever possible and push to a link-up with British troops. Tanks of the 32nd Armored Regiment, closely followed by M-10 tank destroyers of the 703rd, battered swiftly ahead. With them were the "Blitz Doughs" of the 36th Armored Infantry Regiment, the 54th and 6/th Armored Field Artillery Battalions in close support; the engineers, anti-aircraft, medics and maintenance elements, all in the same column, pushing through the dust and smoke and thunder of the attack.

Resistance became violent as the two parallel spearheads turned north at Pre-en-Pail. Carrouges, on the late afternoon of August 13, was a picture of war at its grim height. Greasy smoke hung in a pall over the town and wreckage cluttered its streets. German vehicles by the score bore mute testimony to the new effectiveness of the "Spearhead".

It was at Carrouges that the men of the 3rd first met the French 2nd Armored Division. These Free French seemed to have no idea of march discipline or coordination. They rattled down the roads at high speed, bumper to bumper or, if the whim took them, they'd stop to talk it over, blocking traffic for miles. Lt. Arthur Rutshaw, a CC "A" military police officer, exclaimed: "I saw that French column hit a crossroads at 40 miles per hour. One vehicle went straight ahead, one to the right, and another to the left. Nobody was directing traffic!"

Along the Carrouges-Ranes road, the armor of both sides had suffered. Panther tank and Sherman alike were left on that bitter boulevard, wrecked and burning. The stench of death and flames filled the air. French dwelling houses burned sullenly and, as darkness approached, German aircraft dropped flares above the column.

To the north, Task Force "Y" battled its way beyond Couptrain. Famed tanker Sergeant Lafayette Pool pointed the powerful column with his Sherman, IN THE MOOD. It was a hard, unending fight. Long after darkness had fallen over the flame podked countryside, Colonel Richardson listened to the radio reports of the battle from Pool's vehicle. He heard the Sergeant say: "I ain't got the heart, to kill 'em ..." And then, over the airwaves came the mad rattle of the .30 caliber bow gun, and again the fighting Sergeant's voice: "Watch them bastards run - give it to 'em, Close!"

Pool's crew - little, red headed Wilbert Richards, the driver; Bert Close, his assistant; Willis Oller, who was the gunner; and Del Boggs, loader, made a crack team. That night they fought from dusk to dawn. After it was finished and the columns were pushing forward again, the ground before their position was littered with dead.

Following an oral order from Captain Cyril Andersen to "keep moving until something heavy hits you," S/Sgt. George Carver, and his crew, led Task Force " X " on the direct route to Ranes. Anti-tank guns blazed away down the narrow road and machine gun fire crackled steadily as the armored column bit deeply into enemy territory. As usual, bypassed fanatics closed in behind, so that by the time TF "X" had leaguered in small fields on the outskirts of Ranes, the force was completely surrounded by the best troops of Nazi Germany - surrounded, and cut off from outside assistance. General Hickey's troops knew this, but they were not overly surprised or alarmed.

Surrounded? Of course - the matter had become a source of pride; the 3rd was always surrounded during its long drives. GI's had begun to chuckle over the division's new watch-word: "Call Me Spearhead," and they expected to be surrounded even as they expected to break out again and go smashing forward to lead the First Army on its next sweep.

Enemy aircraft dropped flares overhead and scores of fires sent a ruddy glow mounting into the dark sky as tanks and supporting vehicles of the command rolled into temporary bivouac. There wasn't much sleep that night but vehicles were camouflaged, slit trenches dug, and weapons checked. A steady whirr and crash of artillery added to the din of machine guns. The night was alive with motors, and men of the 3rd systematically prepared to attack at dawn.

Chapter Index

Fighting at Ranes-Fromentel

August 14, 1944, saw some of the heaviest fighting of the Normandy campaign in the Argentan-Falaise struggle. Elite German SS units were well dug in and prepared to defend when the task forces hopped off at daylight. Colonel Richardson's TF "Y", attempting a juncture with "X" at Ranes, hit a stone wall of resistance around Joue Du Bois, bypassed the town, and were halfway to Ranes by dark. Closer to the disputed ground, Task Force "X" was not only unable to mount an attack, but had all it could do to beat off repeated counterblows by crack elements of the 1st and 9th SS Panzer Divisions. Once again all the men of the combat command, including staff officers and cooks, fought a close quarter battle against a fanatic enemy. Jerry used heavy concentrations of artillery and assault gun fire on defensive positions, and his infiltrating teams of infantry were extremely effective. General Hickey's CP, located a scant field behind point tanks, was under continuous sniper and machine gun fire. Company "A" of the 703rd Tank Destroyer Battalion, maintaining road blocks at a road and rail junction, came under heavy attack but managed to knock out three tanks and hold the accompanying panzer grenadiers at bay.

A vicious battle raged throughout the entire day in this vicinity. Mobile artillery of the 54th and 67th Armored Field Artillery Battalions silenced a number of German batteries and pounded strongpoints mercilessly; but still the enemy held fast and inflicted heavy casualties for every foot of ground he yielded.

At dusk on August 14, the combat command was still isolated. Medical aid men and surgeons of the units labored without rest and cursed the fates which denied them passage to the rear for casualties. Soldiers were dying because transportation to proper hospital facilities was impossible; and yet under these terrible conditions the medics saved lives. Tankers and front line infantry are loud in their praises of these brave soldiers who disregarded flame and hot steel to bring out casualties. It was not surprising that men of the medical aid section, 32nd Armored Regiment, received a Distinguished Unit Citation as a direct result of their heroic work on this, and following days, at Ranes-Fromentel.

The fortunes of war seemed evenly balanced on August 14. Overhead, the Thunderbolts and Lightnings of air support strafed and bombed the nearby enemy. One of the unfortunate incidents of war occurred when a P-47, attempting to attack German forces one field ahead of American tanks, accidentally dropped a bomb short. Several GI's were wounded seriously and one killed outright. Another bomb fell within fifty yards of General Hickey's command post, also injuring a number of soldiers. Faulty release mechanisms on the airplanes were believed to be the chief reason for these occurrences.

While CC "A" fought bitterly to hold its ground, the 3rd Battalion of the 33rd Armored Regiment had swung a powerful left hook toward Ranes, and Division Reserve proceeded to attack Joue de Bois. Combat Command "B" blasted into La Mone Fouquet and continued to move up against heavy resistance. During the day, "B" captured more than 1,000 prisoners, and smashed 16 tanks. General Hickey's men, still surrounded, were nevertheless gaining a mastery of the situation. Enemy shell fire was lessening under continuous pounding by division artillery, and every infantry counter attack was beaten back with heavy losses. Prisoner cages were bulging with beaten Nazis, and the dead lay everywhere.

Even beaten, the German soldier at Ranes - Fromentel was good. He was a first class fighting man and troops of the division respected his prowess as much as they hated his guts. At dawn on August 15, an SS combat patrol worked its way into positions of the 703rdTank Destroyer Battalion and captured a popular and very fine TD officer, plus two of his security men and two engineer soldiers. With the exception of one engineer, who escaped, all of these men were later found shot to death. Such occurrences did not engender any love of sportsmanship or pity between opposing American and German troops.

Again the new day saw heavy fighting. Task Force "X" plunged ahead and made slow progress toward the objective, Fromentel. Enemy tanks, hidden in caves, caught the column and almost immediately destroyed four Shermans, including the command vehicle of Company "G", in which Captain Cyril Andersen lost a leg. The attack did not progress very far.

Meanwhile, the rest of the division had been punching its way through bitter resistance and, by nightfall, had burst through and was grouped in the vicinity of Ranes. More hard fighting lay ahead, but at least communication lines to the rear were swept clean of Jerry battle groups.

At dawn on August 16, the "Spearhead" launched a coordinated attack toward Fromentel. Roads were, for the most part, untenable, and so the task forces used bulldozers and travelled across country. Sergeant William Albert, a great tanker of the 32nd, rode the blade of a dozer throughout the attack, seeking a path for his driver and firing a tommy-gun at German infantry all the way.

Jerry assault guns and artillery contested every inch of the route. "Screaming meemies" howled into division forward positions and the whiplash slam of 88's broke through a constant fabric of small arms fire.

On August 17, elements of Combat Command "A" had reached Fromentel from the east while CC "B" was still pinned down by heavy fire on the southwest of town. After the area had been practically cleared, CC "A" was driven out by American P-38 fighter-bombers which dropped their bombs too close for comfort; but Hickey's men came back to take the town again from the few enemy units still remaining. Once again Lightnings bombed the command, and "Spearhead" soldiers began to duck for foxholes whenever they saw the twin-boom fighters approaching.

Chapter Index

Link Up with the British

The battle of the Argentan-Falaise gap was nearly over, but it had not yet spent its fury entirely. On August 17, a mass of German armor, estimated at 1,200 vehicles, passing across the front of the division, received deadly artillery fire and direct attack from the air. Mopping up operations continued in the area, but it was not until the next day that Fromentel and the high ground north of it were finally secured. On the afternoon of August 18, the "Spearhead" Division, represented by tanker Sergeant Donald Ekdahl of the 33rd Armored Regiment, met advance elements of British armor on the road near Putanges.

It had been a bitter, fluctuating battle but individual performances were faultless. Tank commanders had drawn straws to determine which would lead the attack, and battle was often joined at ranges of 75 to 100 yards. One tank destroyer engaged and destroyed two Panther tanks simultaneously at the negligible range of 25 yards. Two shots from the American's 3-inch gun broke the thick frontal armor of the two Mark Vs. The TD commander, Cpl. Joseph Juno, was himself killed by exploding ammunition when he dismounted from his M-10 to aid the enemy wounded.

Men of the 3rd Armored Division, resting and repairing their broken equipment, knew that they had faced the best of Germany's fighting forces, and that they had won by a slim margin. They didn't know, or particularly care, that Argentan-Falaise would be a shining name in history. However in the summing up later, many competent military observers agreed that this action was the true battle for France. After Field Marshal von Kluge's elite elements were cut to bits here, it is certain that the Wehrmacht never again attempted to stand and slug it out with allied forces west of the Siegfried line.

Next Chapter: Northern France & Belgium

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