The road to Fort Driant began for the United States Third Army when it landed on Utah Beach at 3 pm on August 5, 1944. The Third Army had been activated four days earlier in England under the command of Lt. Gen. George S. Patton Jr.
The four corps that made up the Third Army were VIII Corps under Maj. Gen. Troy H. Middleton, XII Corps under Maj. Gen. Gilbert R. Cook (later replaced by Maj. Gen. Manton S. Eddy), XV Corps under Maj. Gen. Wade H. Haislip, and XX Corps under Maj. Gen. Walton H. Walker. Walker was one of Patton’s personal favorites, and he once said of Walker, “He will apparently fight anytime, anywhere, and with anything that I will give him.” That opinion would be put to the test during the Lorraine Campaign that autumn.
Once the army became operational, it did not take Patton long to engage in the hard-driving cavalry tactics that he loved best. The Third Army was able to break out of the French hedgerow country and by August 20 had entered Argentan just southeast of Falaise. The only part of Third Army that was tied down was the XV Corps fighting against the tough German defensive positions in Brittany.
On August 25, the 80th Division began its move to eastern France with an advance of 280 miles in one day. The division then concentrated around Collemieres and two days later crossed the Seine, Aube, and Marne Rivers. By the end of August, the XII Corps had advanced to the high ground east of the Meuse River near St. Mihiel. This place had special significance for Patton because he had been wounded there during World War I. Problems began for the Third Army when Patton was informed by General Omar Bradley, who commanded 12th Army Group, that there would be no more gasoline shipments until September 3. For a highly mobile army like Patton’s, this became a problem of catastrophic proportions. A total of 400,000 gallons of gasoline had been requested and only 32,000 delivered. This shortage alone was enough to bring Patton’s eastward advance toward the frontier of the Third Reich to a standstill. After the war was over Patton aired his frustrated opinion about the consequences of denying him the fuel and supplies that he needed to advance. “I feel that had I been permitted to go all out, the war would have ended sooner and more lives would have been saved,” he remarked. “Particularly, I think this statement applies to the time when, early in September, we were halted, owing to the desire, or the necessity, on the part of General Eisenhower [Supreme Allied Commander General Dwight D. Eisenhower] in backing Montgomery’s [21st Army Group Commander General Bernard Montgomery] move to the north. At that time there was no question of doubt that we could have gone through and across the Rhine within 10 daysThe supply situation had to be rectified before any of the Allied armies could invade Germany. Patton was miffed because studies conducted in May 1944 by SHAEF (Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force) recommended a broad front assault in France with two axes of attack. SHAEF established that the main thrust of the attack would go through Belgium just north of the Ardennes Forest. The armies would then cross the Rhine and plunge deep into the Ruhr, Germany’s industrial heartland. This task would be assigned to Montgomery’s 21st Army Group. Responsibility for the second axis would go to Patton’s Third Army, part of Bradley’s 12th Army Group, and to the 6th Army Group, commanded by Lt. Gen. Jacob L. Devers. Their task was to cut through the Lorraine area and, after crossing the Rhine, capture Frankfurt.
However, Montgomery wanted more. He argued against the broad front concept and instead proposed that a narrow front campaign would be more successful. Of course, he would be in command of the forces, with all the fuel and supplies going to him for a drive to the north.
Montgomery proposed his operation, which would be known as Market Garden, in early September. This involved a further channeling of supplies to his area of operations. It was his intention to obtain a bridgehead over the Rhine with one massive airborne operation far behind the German lines in Holland.
American commanders were appalled at such a daring and risky move and urged Eisenhower to stick to the “on to Berlin” plan. Eisenhower, who earlier had been convinced that the Germans were on the verge of collapse, now believed that they were strengthening daily, especially with newly arrived divisions from the Eastern Front. It was apparent that there would be no German surrender by Christmas. There was also concern that in order to clear the Scheldt Estuary and capture the launching sites for the V-1 flying bombs, which were terrorizing Britain, Montgomery would have to get the majority of the gasoline and supplies. Eisenhower reluctantly gave his approval for Market Garden in September.
General Bradley stated after the war, “Had Monty pared down his ammunition requirements and concentrated instead on gasoline, Patton might have advanced farther.… I argued strenuously with Eisenhower on Monty’s extravagance in tonnage but without success. ”
Combined with the increasingly bad weather in early September, the gasoline shortage allowed the Germans time to build their defenses in front of the Third Army. As Patton’s offensive operations gradually slowed, German counterattacks on Third Army’s flanks increased. It was apparent that the Germans were in a full fighting withdrawal. Their operations focused on defending and delaying actions while units of all types were massing in their rear. Remnants of the German Army were now engaged in delaying actions east of the Moselle River and concentrated armored counterattacks against Third Army’s bridgeheads.
After these attacks were blunted by the Third Army, Hitler replaced Col. Gen. Johannes Blaskowitz as commander of Army Group G with the tough campaigner from the Eastern Front, General Hermann Balck. Hitler had considered Blaskowitz too passive and favored Balck, who, having many of the same characteristics as his adversary Patton, would conduct an aggressive and ruthless campaign against the Americans. Balck, as an ardent Nazi, was more than willing to carry out his Führer’s directives. Instead of fleeing to the West Wall (Siegfried Line), he dug in around Metz and the Moselle and Seille Rivers. He was prepared to make the Americans pay for every yard.
By the end of September, gasoline shipments to the Third Army had been reduced to a mere trickle. The October lull would be used to build up Army supplies, reassemble, regroup, and plan the imminent invasion of Germany. The XX Corps was to be used as a training unit for teaching troops how to assault fixed fortifications like the kind that faced them around the heavily fortified city of Metz.
Third Army’s intelligence section had already determined that the Germans intended to make the most of the ring of forts around Metz, the ancient gateway city through which so many invading armies had passed. Metz was to be the linchpin in the Germans’ defensive strategy. An army had not directly taken Metz since 1552. It had been captured after a 54-day siege during the Franco-Prussian War and had been fortified by the Germans in World War I. However, after the Great War the string of fortresses were left in ruins.
These were all facts that the history-conscious Patton should have known. When it became apparent that the Allies were going to plunge through France, the fortresses were reoccupied and slightly renovated. They would provide security for the retreating German armies and the advance of the Allies. Metz was to be Balck’s anchor for the German Line of defense that paralleled the Siegfried line to the west. It was the Germans’ intention to hold this main line of resistance to buy time so defensive positions could be strengthened along the Rhine. The cold and wet weather would also keep Allied air operations to a minimum. With the Allied advance literally stopped cold, Patton decided, against his own better judgment, to test the defensive qualities of the German positions around the southern half of Metz. It became clear that any gains made along the Moselle near Metz could not be exploited without doing something about the German defensive positions in the forts.
Fort Driant, in particular, with its 150mm guns, could bring down flanking fire and was already producing casualties among XX Corps personnel as Walker’s men tried to throw bridges across the Moselle. Patton decided that while it might not be able to continue an offensive posture, Third Army was not going to remain idle during the lull. Third Army would conduct a reconnaissance in force, and if anything broke open the gains would be exploited.
It became the task of Patton’s XX Corps, and its commander, Maj. Gen. Walker, to take Metz and its fortification system. It was quickly ascertained that the key to Metz was Fort Driant, and on September 17 an excited Walker came up with a plan for its capture, code-named Operation Thunderbolt. This was to be a combined air and ground assault against Fort Driant.