Desperate Hours on Omaha Beach - Sidebar: July '99 World War II Feature | HistoryNet MENU

Desperate Hours on Omaha Beach – Sidebar: July ’99 World War II Feature

8/19/1999 • World War II

The German 352nd Infantry Division on the Western Front

The German 352nd Infantry Division, heavily attrited by battles along Omaha Beach, withdrew from its shore positions before being overwhelmed by the ever-growing American forces. Division commander Major General Dietrich Kraiss risked an unauthorized breakout to free his division, which was threatened by the U.S. 1st Infantry Division. On June 8, 1944, the 1st Division made contact with the British 50th Division near Port en Bessin, thus linking the British and American beachheads.

On June 12, 1944, the 352nd came under the control of the German 2nd Parachute Corps. Deployed northeast of St. Lô along the Elle River, Kraiss’ division battled the U.S. 29th Infantry Division June 13­18, until the latter forced its way across the river and the 352nd repositioned itself in front of St. Lô.

Kraiss and his battered division held the Americans before St. Lô, where Kraiss was mortally wounded on August 2. St. Lô fell to the Americans, and the shattered remnants of the 352nd fell back again. Together with the 9th Panzer Division, the 352nd attempted to prevent the U.S. XV Corps from closing the gap at Falaise. The division then withdrew to defensive positions at Rambouillet, south of Paris, as part of the XLVII Panzer Corps. The XLVII Panzer Corps was a collection of worn-out and otherwise depleted divisions. Shortly before the fall of Paris, the remainder of the 352nd’s soldiers were assigned to other units, and only a cadre of former division and regimental staff was withdrawn to Flensburg, Germany, to constitute a new division.

The German army was rebuilding to mount a great offensive in the west. SS Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler, who was in charge of the replacement army, oversaw the refitting and redesignation of units as Volksgrenadier (VG) divisions. The divisions that bore the honorary VG designation were reconstituted with former naval, Luftwaffe and army service personnel. The new or rebuilt divisions were short of transportation, had little armor and were equipped with a wide assortment of artillery whose crews were not permitted much in the way of live-fire training. Individual firepower, however, was high, since the infantry was provided with semiautomatic MP44 and G43 rifles as well as the rapid-firing MG42 machine gun and 38-ton Jagdpanzer assault guns.

The rebuilt 13,000-man 352nd VG Division was activated in September 1944. Colonel Otto Schmidt assumed command of the 352nd VG on November 11, though it was not until December that he was briefed on his division’s upcoming role in the Ardennes Offensive. The soldiers moved into the old West Wall positions between the towns of Bauler and Echternach in the Eifel region on November 26. As in its Normandy days, the 352nd established defensive positions and marked routes for the positions of newly arrived units. Veterans of Omaha enforced blackout and camouflage discipline and provided leadership to green troops.

The new division lacked the engineering equipment to properly bridge the Our River, and the 352nd’s troops had to scavenge army depots and local communities for rafts and boats for the crossing when the order came to attack. To build a vital footbridge, the soldiers stripped doors and shutters from evacuated homes and confiscated farm carts.

The division attacked on December 16, during the Battle of the Bulge, and tackled the battle-weary U.S. 28th Division’s 109th Infantry Regiment, which was itself refitting following bloody battles in the Hürtgen Forest. Diekirch, Luxembourg, fell to the 352nd VG, and the division moved on to Ettelbruck. Reduced to a half-dozen Jagdpanzer assault guns, the 352nd was no match for relief forces of General George Patton’s Third Army. Ettelbruck was abandoned, and the 352nd fought delaying actions back toward Diekirch and the Our River. During those battles, Schmidt was wounded while personally leading an assault. He was promoted to major general in January 1945, when he resumed command of the division.

At the conclusion of the Battle of the Bulge, the 352nd retreated to the east bank of the Sauer River, roughly opposite Echternach. Swollen with water from melting snow, the Sauer provided a temporary impediment to an assault by U.S. troops, but it was clearly only a matter of time before the Americans attacked. American artillery pounded German pillboxes surrounding the Irrel Gap leading toward the Eifel brewery town of Bitburg.

A battlegroup of the 352nd VG joined the remainder of the 2nd Panzer Division to block the U.S. drive on Prüm. A few 352nd elements struck a company of the U.S. 8th Infantry Division and temporarily succeeded in recapturing Hill 511, but they were driven off by the end of the same day. While those battles took place west of Prüm, the remainder of the 352nd VG deployed southwest of Bitburg. Positioned on steep hills overlooking the Ens River by Peffingen, the 352nd vainly tried to halt the Americans at the last natural obstacle before Bitburg.

By February 25, 1945, all villages west of the Prüm River were in U.S. hands, and on the 26th the U.S. 5th Infantry Division drove the 352nd out of Bitburg. The remainder of the 352nd regrouped east of the Kyll River in an area where two months earlier the Germans had assembled for the attack through the Ardennes. With the American breakthroughs north of the Moselle River, the 352nd began an almost miraculous withdrawal out of the high Eifel, across the Moselle and east across the Rhine.

The U.S. 45th and 3rd Infantry divisions crossed the Rhine near Worms on March 26 and found no emplacements barring their way. German units, including the 352nd, were positioned in the wrong spot. With the Rhine barrier breached and the U.S. 4th Armored Division approaching, the 352nd fell back in panic.

German XIII Corps commander General Graf von Oriola, who commanded a provisional corps comprised of four decimated divisions, halted the 352nd’s retreat and ordered its remaining 400 men across two autobahns between Darmstadt and Heidelberg to prevent the Americans from enveloping the German forces around Heidelberg. In his entire corps, he had not a single anti-tank gun. The great envelopment never occurred, however, since U.S. soldiers pushed east toward Aschaffenburg. The broken 352nd, with less than regimental strength, dissolved into obscurity during the last month of the war.

Kevin R. Austra[ TOP ] [ Cover ]