With the defeat of the German Seventh Army and the closing of the Falaise Gap in the summer of 1944, the Allies pursued the retreating enemy across France. During the advance, their supply lines were stretched to the breaking point. The distance from the beaches and the only open port of any size, Cherbourg, meant that the diverging directions of the Allied advance could not be sustained equally. These logistical concerns heated up a debate over strategy. A single thrust into the heart of the Ruhr was strongly supported by the British, led by Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery. The Supreme Commander, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, favored a broader front. As Lt. Gen. George S. Patton’s Third Army charged east toward the Meuse and Moselle Rivers, Eisenhower assured Monty that despite the broad-front strategy he was adopting, the need to open up ports on the Channel coast would dictate that the British-led forces receive priority supplies. Patton and his superior, Lt. Gen. Omar N. Bradley, protested strongly because this approach would halt to their own headlong advance.
“My men,” declared Patton, “can eat their belts, but my tanks have gotta have gas.” Bradley also wanted to turn the First Army eastward, and the combined pressure eventually produced a compromise. “We finally persuaded General Eisenhower to let V Corps of the First Army and the Third Army go on and attack the Siegfried Line as soon as the Calais area was stabilized,” said Patton, who later reported that he obtained “permission to seize crossings over the Moselle … whenever I could get the fuel to move.”
What Patton did not reveal was that one of his corps had just captured 110,000 gallons of the precious fluid, enough to take it to the Moselle. Unfortunately for the Allies as a whole, this concession was untimely. The Germans, who had regarded Patton as the greater threat, had already been discovered concentrating forces to check him on the Moselle. Now, he had sufficient resources engage in battle, but the fuel supply remained insufficient for his tanks to cut through quickly or win an encounter.
On September 3, 1944, Hitler ordered Field Marshal Walther Model to concentrate powerful forces on the Upper Moselle with the aim of producing a counterattack into the flank of the Americans. This was never a realistic option, rendered still less so by the rapid advance of the British and Canadians to Brussels and Antwerp. The enormous gap that now opened up between the German Fifteenth Army along the coast and the Seventh Army in full flight ahead of the Americans after the closing of the Falaise Gap presented the Reich with a crisis. Committing reserves appeared to be the only way to maintain an adequate defense. While the barrel was scraped for every available man—convalescents formed invalid battalions, training establishments were scoured, and garrisons were stripped—Luftwaffe chief Hermann Göring blithely announced that he had six parachute regiments.
These regiments were combined with Luftwaffe ground staff and troops and were formed into the First Parachute Army, which was brought into the line in the Netherlands. Germany, however, not only had a crisis of manpower, but of equipment as well. Although all 88mm antitank guns, Tiger II heavy tanks, and Jagdpanther tank destroyers were directed to the west, the mobile Panther medium tanks and most of the heavy self-propelled assault guns went east, leaving the German commander-in-chief, Field Marshal Gerd von Rund- stedt, without an armored reserve powerful enough to counter another Allied breakthrough. He had to prevent the battle from becoming fluid again. The best chance of achieving this lay in holding off the most immediate threat at the Meuse long enough to man the fixed defenses of the Siegfried Line on the German frontier.
As the Germans faced disaster, so the argument over the strategy of the Allied advance continued. Eisenhower persisted with his idea of a broad front with emphasis in the north. Bradley took this as the opportunity to allow Patton to continue advancing and allocated him half the available supplies so that he could “cross the Moselle and force the Siegfried Line.”
What Patton did not appreciate was the change in the ground he was covering. Having swept across open farmland, he was now approaching the traditional battleground between France and Germany, Alsace-Lorraine. Three major rivers and innumerable tributaries carved the landscape into wooded, hilly tracts, difficult enough for infantry and totally unsuited for armored operations. Since Roman times, this had been the natural route for armies to take in both directions. Fortifications had been built and improved upon throughout the centuries.
While some had assumed that the tank and the airplane had rendered static fortifications obsolete, it became apparent that the advancing Americans would be forced to contend with the region’s fixed German defenses. The French had begun refortifying strongpoints in the area in the 1860s, and the work was continued by the Germans after their victory in the Franco-Prussian War. As artillery improved, so did the works throughout the period before World War I.
These fortifications bore no relation to the medieval idea of a lump of stone dominating the landscape. They aimed at concealing, armored artillery batteries, infantry shelters, and pillboxes, all often connected by tunnels and trenches to subterranean hospitals, mess halls, power stations, and every necessity of command and control.
Many fortifications were surrounded by thick barbed wire, unscalable fences, and deep minefields. They were also designed so that losing a foothold in one corner would not reduce the complex’s effectiveness. Eight of these fortifications were built around the city of Metz and more around Thionville. All were positioned to block any advance from the Moselle. They were garrisoned by troops gleaned from officer and noncom training establishments, battle-hardened from the Eastern Front. Meanwhile, Allied headquarters, surprised as it was by the speed of the advance, was unable to supply anything other than Michelin tourist maps at a scale of 1:100,000. While they showed the main roads, they were useless for close analysis of terrain or for meaningful planning.
Because they would be facing somewhat unconventional defenses, the advancing Americans eventually resorted to a seldom-used technique to deal with the strongpoints: generating a large forward smoke screen.
Smoke had been used successfully in the North African and Italian campaigns, but never before in northwest Europe. Twelve smoke generator companies were assigned to the European Theater of Operations, but only four were available for forward operations and only two of these were actually operational. The remainder were stuck in rear areas on transport, security, and other duties. They had all been trained for rear-area antiaircraft support duties and they had never operated under continuous and heavy fire.
As Dawn Broke on September 8, the Old Forts Burst into Life, Pouring Fire into the Crowded Units Across the River.
The unit chosen to undertake this hazardous mission was the 84th Smoke Generator Company attached to the 5th Division and under the operational control of the 1103rd Engineer Combat Group. These formations had no experience working with smoke.
On September 6, Patton resumed the advance, deploying a strong reconnaissance force with the aim of forcing the Moselle at Metz. This was preceded by a light cavalry screen that, after encountering serious opposition, was forced to retire by elements of the 17th SS Panzer Division, which was retreating in front of them. By September 8, however, the Meuse was crossed and the Americans were almost into Bastogne, having already taken Liége.
Model reported to von Rundstedt that “there is only a very thin and inadequate defense line … the enemy enjoys almost complete freedom of movement as far as the West Wall [Siegfried Line], which is held—to the rear of Seventh Army—by only seven or eight battalions on a front of 120 kilometers.” Unless Seventh Army were substantially reinforced, a strategic breach would be opened on the German frontier. When the Americans reached the Moselle, they found that all the bridges had been blown. After four or five fordable crossing sites were reported, the reconnaissance force headed toward these.
The Moselle runs lies in a deep valley, and the roads down to it run through ravines. All of these were covered by German troops. It was difficult enough to get the first American troops down to the water’s edge. Then came a delay while engineers and bridging equipment were brought forward. When the 5th Infantry Division was ordered to Dornot to make a crossing, the troops found the 7th Armored Division already in place and creating an appalling traffic jam. As the units piled up behind each other, rain and sleet added to their misery.
Facing the Americans across the river were two forts, Sommy and St. Blaise. Like most older forts noted on the Michelin maps, they were marked inaccurately and usually discounted by the advancing troops as ancient monuments. As dawn broke on September 8, they burst into life, pouring fire into the crowded units across the river.
By afternoon, a force from the 11th Infantry Regiment managed a crossing in assault boats, and two companies set out to capture Fort St. Blaise. They advanced up a hill and through a wooded area without opposition until they found themselves suddenly outside the fort. One company commander was shot by a sniper, driving the rest of the soldiers to ground. Ahead of them were five rows of barbed wire, a 13-foot steel fence, and a dry ditch approximately 50 feet wide and 16 feet deep. A prisoner they had taken on the way added to their woes by describing the garrison as 1,500 SS men.