Nazi Killer: This Was the Battle That Made Patton a Legend

February 23, 2020 Topic: History Region: Europe Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: PattonWorld War IIHitlerNaziWarArmyU.S. ArmyMilitaryHistoryGermany

Nazi Killer: This Was the Battle That Made Patton a Legend

But the cost of victory, like so many times during World War II, was high. 

Key point: Patton was impatient to resume offensive operations and would lead an attack on the forts at Metz. Although he would win a tactical victory, it would come at a high cost.

Lieutenant General George Patton’s Third Army had come a long way since it was activated on August 1 in Normandy. Following the breakout from Normandy in late July, Patton’s army had swept 400 miles in one month’s time all across central France to the Lorraine region, where it was met by General der Panzertruppen Otto Knobelsdorff’s First Army, which was determined to defend the Moselle line.

Nevertheless, the XII Corps under Maj. Gen. Manton Eddy on Patton’s right, or southern, wing, was able to cross the Moselle and concentrate at Arracourt, while his other corps, the XX Corps, under Maj. Gen. Walton Walker, aimed directly for Metz.

Reinforced by General der Panzertruppen Hasso von Manteuffel’s 5th Panzer Army in the middle of the month, Knobelsdorff’s First Army was in a position to launch a major counterattack against Eddy’s XII Corps bridgehead. A surprise attack against Eddy’s right flank at Lunéville on September 18 marked the beginning of a protracted 11-day tank battle in which German forces tried unsuccessfully to isolate and destroy Eddy’s bridgehead on the east bank of the Moselle.

Throughout the course of the Battle of Arracourt, the Germans were constantly forced to scale back their objectives when the Americans successfully parried one blow after another. During the fighting, Maj. Gen. John Wood’s 4th Armored Division––dubbed “Patton’s Best” by its members and “Roosevelt’s Butchers” by the enemy––was able to inflict heavy losses on German panzer units.

The fighting fizzled out when German Führer Adolf Hitler transferred Manteuffel’s Fifth Army north at the end of the month to counter the Allies’ moves against the West Wall, as well as part of preparations for a planned winter attack through the Ardennes.

Patton on the Defensive

On September 25 12th Army Group commander Lt. Gen. Omar Bradley had ordered Patton to go on the defensive so that precious fuel reserves could be channeled to Allied forces engaged in Operation Market Garden, a major operation designed to capture key bridges in Holland. The shortage of fuel meant that Patton was unable to follow up his victory at Arracourt with a counterstroke that might have allowed his troops to reach the West Wall before the onset of bad weather.

Loud grumbling from Patton could do nothing to change the situation. Still, the Third Army’s commander was too impatient to sit idly by with German forces within striking distance. At the end of September 1944 fuel wasn’t the only commodity in short supply for the Third Army. Patton’s men also lacked howitzer ammunition, rain gear, blankets, and sufficient rations. Morale dipped as a result, and Patton set about finding a way to keep his troops in the fight––regardless of the dismal supply situation.

As soon as Patton received the official word that he was to take a defensive stance, he submitted to Bradley a plan he had drawn up that he hoped would enable him to continue limited offensive operations. “The whole plan was based … on maintaining the offensive spirit of the troops by attacking at various points whenever my means permitted it,” Patton wrote in his memoirs. In addition to keeping his various units in fighting trim, these limited attacks were meant to adjust the Army’s line in key places so as to give the units favorable departure points for resuming full-scale offensive operations once more fuel became available.

While Eddy’s XII Corps units had firmly established themselves to a depth of 15 to 20 miles on the east bank of the Moselle, the one division of Maj. Gen. Walton Walker’s XX Corps that had managed to cross the Moselle just south of Metz in September remained in a precarious position. Maj. Gen. Leroy Irwin’s 5th Infantry Division had crossed at Arnaville on September 10, but since then had been contained by the veteran 17th SS Panzergrenadier Division in fortified positions atop high ground to the east.

The continuing reorganization of Allied forces on the Western Front left Patton with four veteran infantry and two armored divisions with which to prosecute his limited attacks in early October. Maj. Gen. Wade Haislip’s XV Corps was reassigned to Lt. Gen. Jacob Devers’s Sixth Army Group, which lay to the Third Army’s south, while the 7th Armored Division was transferred from Walker to Lt. Gen. William Simpson’s Ninth Army. In return, Patton was promised three new divisions between mid-October and the first week of November.

The German Order of Battle at Metz

The main German force responsible for holding Metz was Knobelsdorff’s First Army, which belonged to General der Panzertruppen Hermann Balck’s Army Group G; Balck kept a close hand in the First Army’s operations. The German First Army had lost the cream of its forces after September. The crack 3rd and 15th Panzergrenadier Divisions were transferred north as part of the assembly of elite units to counter Allied moves against the West Wall (and, as mentioned, to prepare for Hitler’s coming winter offensive that would be known as the Battle of the Bulge). Another unit, the veteran 553rd Volksgrenadier Division, was sent south to join the Ninteenth Army. Of the First Army’s nine divisions, only four had offensive capabilities. The other five, because of a lack of equipment and experience, were capable only of static defense.

Knobelsdorff’s First Army forces comprised the 11th Panzer and 17th SS Panzer-grenadier Divisions, the 48th and 416th Divisions, the Luftwaffe 9th Flak Division, and the 19th, 361st, 462nd, and 559th Volksgrenadier Divisions. The 416th Division and the 19th and 361st Volksgrenadier Divisions would begin arriving in the sector in October but were pitiful substitutes for the troops they were meant to replace.

Balck’s reserve consisted only of Generalleutnant Wend Wiethersheim’s 11th Panzer Division. Wiethersheim enjoyed the distinction of being the only commander in the string of battles fought in September to seriously threaten the Americans. Having lost nearly all his armor in the September fighting, Wiethersheim had pleaded for more tanks and by the beginning of November had an armored force consisting of 60 Panthers and Mark IVs and 10 tank destroyers with which to counter Third Army breakthroughs in the German battle line.

In the north, on the German right flank, was stationed the untested 416th Division, which consisted of middle-aged garrison troops from Denmark led by Generalleutnant Kurt Pflieger. Directly opposite Thionville, and in supporting distance of the Metz garrison, was Oberst Karl Britzelmayr’s 19th Volksgrenadier Division, which had seen combat and had enough field artillery to be reasonably effective in static defense. Generalleutnant Vollrath Luebbe’s 462nd Volksgrenadier Division manned the Metz fortifications and General der Waffen-SS Werner Ostendorff’s 17th SS Panzergrenadier Division held the ground immediately south of the city. Generalleutnant Carl Caspar’s 48th Division, the smallest and weakest unit in the First Army, was stationed south of the Panzergrenadiers.

The hilly forests and valleys east of Nancy were defended by General Major Kurt Freiherr Muehlen’s 559th Volksgrenadier Division. Farther south, Oberst Alfred Philippi’s 361st Volksgrenadier Division––a hodgepodge of sailors and Luftwaffe support personnel inexperienced in ground combat—anchored the German left flank.

The 9th Flak Division supported the First Army’s left flank, and Wiethersheim’s 11th Panzer Division was positioned about 15 miles behind the main line in the center near Saint Avold, where it could respond quickly to any threat along the 60-mile front.

The 43 Forts of Metz

Although Eddy’s XII Corps on Patton’s right flank launched an attack on October 8 to correct its line and establish a bridgehead on the east bank of the Seille River in preparation for the pending full-scale offensive, the two bloodiest local attacks during October were carried out by Walker’s XX Corps on the west bank of the Moselle––one north of Metz at the industrial town of Maizieres-les-Metz and one south of it at Fort Driant.

Fort Driant, which was part of the chain of forts at Metz on the west bank of the Moselle guarding the approach from that direction, was the primary objective of a limited attack assigned to troops from Irwin’s 5th Infantry Division. Until Driant’s five batteries were silenced, it would be impossible for Patton’s infantry to move up the Moselle River along the east bank and attack the city itself.

The very large thorn in the Third Army’s side was the sprawling Metz fortress system whose octopus-like tentacles spread six miles west of the Moselle and reached back another four miles to the east of the old Gallo-Roman city. The massive system, which made Metz the most heavily fortified city in Europe at the time, consisted of 43 forts arrayed in an inner and outer belt that together mounted 128 heavy guns. Artillery fired from strategic forts in the outer belt had wreaked havoc on attempts by Walker’s infantry divisions to cross the Moselle above and below the city during September.

The forts in the outer belt were situated in close proximity to each other so as to provide mutual support. The two most formidable forts on the west bank were named “Driant” and “Jeanne D’Arc.” In those and other modern forts in the complex, the guns were housed in revolving steel turrets and their crews and the rest of the garrison protected in subterranean quarters surrounded by dry moats and multiple rows of barbed wire designed to make a direct assault against the fort a costly endeavor.