Key Point: Conquering Koenigsmacker was a minor victory for the 90th Infantry Division and Third Army in the context of the division river crossing characterized by General Patton as “epic.”
In his autobiography, War As I Knew It, Lt. Gen. George S. Patton, Jr., set the tone for what was to become one of his Third U.S. Army’s infantry divisions’ major accomplishments in World War II. He stated: “I woke up at 0300 on the morning of November 8, 1944, and it was raining very hard. I tried to go to sleep but, finding it impossible, got up and started to read Rommel’s book, Infantry Attacks. By chance I turned to a chapter describing a fight in the rain in September 1914. This was very reassuring because I felt that if the Germans could do it, I could.…”
Patton’s army had been halted since early September by renewed determined German resistance before the eastern French city of Metz in the province of Lorraine. Efforts to capture the city and neutralize or destroy the ring of fortresses surrounding it had been in vain. On November 8, the beginning of a major coordinated effort by two U.S. Army corps to capture the city and fortification system which would open the way to the Rhine River, was the reason for Patton’s sleeplessness and his late-night reading of Rommel’s book.
First, Maj. Gen. Manton S. Eddy’s XII Corps launched its assault south of Metz early that morning. Then, before dawn the next day, elements of Maj. Gen. Walton Walker’s XX Corps crossed the Moselle River north of Metz and the neighboring city of Thionville, which culminated in what Patton was to label “an epic river crossing.”
German resistance to this major operation had previously proved successful in thwarting Patton’s attempts to capture the forts of a defensive system west of the Moselle River. Prominent among these operations was the unsuccessful attempt to capture the formidable and largely underground complex of Fort Driant located on the western approaches to Metz and which effectively commanded river-crossing sites south of the city.
The German Forces Opposing Patton
The German First Army was the principal enemy formation facing Patton’s two attacking corps. South of Metz and opposite Eddy’s XII Corps was the XII SS Corps’ 17th SS Panzergrenadier Division, an elite—at least in name—combat organization in the German Army. In Metz itself was stationed the 462nd Volksgrenadier Division under Generalleutnant Vollrath Luebbe. (He would suffer a stroke on November 12 and be replaced by Generalmajor Heinrich Kittel.)
To the 462nd’s north and covering a distance of some 20 miles to the small French town of Koenigsmacker was the 19th Volksgrenadier Division, which had been formed from remnants of the 19th Luftwaffe-Sturm-Division (19th Air Force Storm Division) in October 1944 and was led by the highly decorated Generalmajor Karl Britzelmayr.
The 19th Volksgrenadier Division was composed of three infantry regiments, the 59th, 73rd, and 74th. Each of these regiments consisted of two battalions, the 1st Battalion of the 74th forming the division’s right flank and manning Fort Koenigsmacker, which overlooked the hamlet of Basse Ham—not the fort’s namesake, the adjacent village of Koenigsmacker.
To the north of the 19th Volksgrenadier was the 416th Infantry Division, commanded by Generalleutnant Kurt Pflieger, with its organic regiments, the 713th and 714th. The seam between the 19th and 416th ran through Koenigsmacker village, which was later to have fire support implications for the German defense of Fort Koenigsmacker during the Third Army thrust over the Moselle River on November 9.
The combat effectiveness of these German formations varied widely. As expected, the 17th SS Panzergrenadier Division Götz von Berlichingen, under SS Gruppenführer Werner Ostendorff, stood as the most effective, although it, like most such organizations, lacked certain key elements, in this instance tank units. On the bottom rung was Pflieger’s 416th, which had arrived from Denmark at the beginning of October. Its role in German-occupied Denmark was that of static security. It had seen no combat and with its complement of elderly soldiers was regarded as best suited for strictly defensive battle.
Britzelmayr’s 19th Division had combat experience and, with about 5,000 soldiers, was between 80 and 85 percent of full strength. Its artillery complement consisted of a medium and two light battalions with an antitank element of 10 heavy weapons. The division’s subordinate units’ battle effectiveness lay somewhere between that of the 17th SS and 416th with varying degrees of competence depending to some extent on each unit’s access to fortress protection and fighting positions.
These German organizations were deployed in a defensive posture, which included manning forts reconditioned by the Germans during the time preceding Patton’s drive to finally capture Metz and its surrounding ring of fortresses. To the north of Metz and around the city of Thionville, the front line lay along the Moselle River which—at the time Patton awoke on the early morning of November 8—was at full flood stage.
It was this rain-engorged waterway that the U.S. XX Corps’ 90th Infantry Division, nicknamed the “Tough ‘Ombres” and commanded by Maj. Gen. James A. Van Fleet, had been ordered to cross and, in a northern pincer movement, meet the 5th Infantry Division’s southern pincer. The corps’ objective was to seal off and capture Metz with the ultimate goal of advancing east into Germany. Another American infantry division, the 95th, would also be employed in the battle. In addition, the 83rd Division’s artillery and the 10th Armored Division’s tanks would be available to support the assault.
The U.S. Army’s official history says, “The initial envelopment of the Metz area was assigned to the 90th Division, forming the arm north of the city, and the 5th Division, encircling the city from the south. The 95th Division was to contain the German salient west of the Moselle. Then, as the concentric attack closed on Metz, the 95th Division was to drive in the enemy salient and, it was planned, cross the Moselle and capture the city proper. The 10th Armored Division, after crossing the Moselle behind the 90th Division, was to close the pincers east of Metz by advancing parallel to and on the left of the 90th Division….”
During Patton’s major November 1944 northern thrust to envelope Metz’s fortress system, his 90th Infantry Division had one enemy stronghold obstacle to conquer: the formidable German-occupied Fort Koenigsmacker.
The fortress complex lay directly in the division’s path of the advance as the fort’s guns commanded the Moselle River’s crossing sites north of Metz and Thionville. U.S. Army Historian Hugh M. Cole noted in his volume of the Army’s official history, The Lorraine Campaign: “The tactical effectiveness of its location forbade that Fort Koenigsmacker be bypassed; it had to be taken and quickly.”
The 90th’s 358th Infantry Regiment, commanded by Colonel Christian H. Clarke, Jr., was charged with the critical mission of taking the fort, and the regiment’s 1st Battalion was specifically assigned the task.
Fort Koenigsmacker contained a battery of four powerful 100mm guns mounted in revolving ground-level armored steel turrets which, if properly manned and maintained, had the range to interdict military activity several miles in any direction. Although the gun line was oriented primarily to the north, the cannons could effectively bring fire to bear along a significant stretch of the Moselle River.
The fort was part of a longstanding defense network protecting the city of Thionville and the metropolis of Metz, both being surrounded by a number of elaborate fortifications. Some of the forts dated back to the time of the famous French military engineer the Marquis de Vauban (1633-1707).
The Germans constructed pentagon-shaped Fort Koenigsmacker between 1908 and 1915 when they occupied the French province of Lorraine following the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. After World War I, the fort and the province reverted to French control. When the French constructed the massive Maginot Line designed to stop an invasion from Germany in the 1930s, however, the fort was not considered an integral part of that elaborate defense system. Then, in 1940, the French lost the fort during the German invasion. In 1944, the Germans reactivated Fort Koenigsmacker to help stem the Allied advance into the Fatherland.
Besides the four-gun battery, the fortress contained three large blocks of underground living quarters, several scattered and protected shelter points, a deep moat on its eastern side fronted by a retaining wall, and armored steel observation posts with firing apertures for machine guns. Connecting the different parts of the fort was a system of deep underground tunnels lined with thick concrete. Numerous infantry fighting trenches around the various reinforced structures, zeroed in by mortars and artillery, encircled most of the top of the fortress. Dense thickets of barbed wire entangled the moats, which surrounded the complex and restricted movement within the fort’s confines.
Maintaining Operational Secrecy
In November 1944, Fort Koenigsmacker overlooked a swollen, swift, and turbulent Moselle River fed by heavy rainfall from watercourses throughout the region. On November 9, opposite the fortress, the river was almost a mile wide, partially flooding villages on its western bank. In some places the water was four feet deep—too deep for vehicle movement up to the river’s usual banks. A major impediment to even approaching the normal riverbanks was the mud.