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.
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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.