The tanks of the 8th Tank Battalion, which I was a part of, rolled through Vaucouleurs, France, crossed the historic Meuse River and moved into a bivouac along its bank. It was early on September 1, 1944. The 8th was part of Combat Command B of the 4th Armored Division, the spearhead of General George S. Patton’s Third Army. Amazingly, those tanks had just advanced 328 miles in 12 days, moving forward as many as 51 miles in a single day. The 4th Armored Division’s August sweep across the widest part of France was one of the most sensational operations in the annals of American military history and a triumph without parallel in the history of mobile warfare.
Pursuing the Germans relentlessly, the Americans reached the French border province of Lorraine. In 30 days they had covered a distance that Allied military planners had assumed would take nearly three times as long to travel. This astonishing advance was possible because conditions for armored operations were almost perfect. The days were long, the nights short. The terrain was dry, and the tanks could go cross-country almost unimpeded, often bypassing pockets of resistance. Opposition was scattered, and many enemy troops simply fled. Others had resisted fanatically, blowing up bridges in roads or mining and defending roads with anti-tank guns. Many bridges had been destroyed, but the tanks were able to ford most of the creeks, streams and small rivers because the water was low.
No obstacles had deterred the aggressive tankers of the 4th Armored Division. Now we sat just 63 miles from the German border and no more than 140 miles from our objective, the Rhine River. That was less than half the distance we had come during the last 12 days, and at the rate we had been moving, the Rhine surely could not be more than a week or 10 days away. I was so optimistic about our prospects that I had already bet several of my associates that the war in Europe would be over by Thanksgiving. And it appeared that Patton would realize his hopes of a rapid dash into Germany and crossings over the Rhine at Mannheim and Mainz.
Much to our surprise, we did not move the next day or the day after. On the third day, we were informed that because of extended supply lines there was a shortage of gasoline, and we would be forced to remain in place. With that announcement, I knew the grand and glorious advance of the past month was over. The ideal conditions for armored operation would vanish, and the incessant rains would come. And even more disturbing, the enemy was being handed on a silver platter that most cherished of all commodities, time–time to reorganize, time to receive reinforcements from other parts of Europe.
Then came more demoralizing news. There was gasoline, but not enough for all the Allied forces. The Allied command gave logistical priority to British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery and the armies in the north. This was difficult for us to accept. In the north were built-up areas and difficult cross compartments, and Montgomery was a conservative and cautious commander. Patton was the one who had electrified the world with his August sweep, and he was closer to the German border and at least 100 miles closer to the Rhine than Montgomery. It is an established military principle that success should be reinforced. Since that principle was being violated, I could not believe that this had been a military decision.
At any rate, we sat. We read, swam, played touch football and basked in the sun. As we sat, we studied our maps and recognized that to the east we would soon be facing a formidable obstacle. The events occurring just to the north of us were not reassuring.
Major General Manton S. Eddy, our XII Corps commander, had ordered a crossing of the Moselle River north of Nancy, France. The mission was given to the 317th Regiment of the 80th Infantry Division. When they launched an assault boat crossing on the morning of September 5, the attackers received enemy artillery and mortar fire from positions dug on forward slopes of the dominating terrain across the river. The intense, accurate fire paralyzed the attackers, broke the American ranks and destroyed most of the rubber boats intended for the river crossing.
Later, a night attack was launched. About four platoons were successful in reaching the east side, although casualties were heavy and more than half the assault boats were lost. Before the Americans could be reinforced, the Germans left their foxholes armed with bayonets, grenades and machine pistols and wiped out the American position by 11 a.m. on the 6th. For the time being, no further crossings would be attempted.
Sunday, September 10, began as just another sunny day. But on that glorious Sunday afternoon, the unsuspecting tankers were surprised by orders to move. The men wondered if this was for real, and, if so, why they were being told to move out so suddenly. They did not stop to ask questions; they hopped right to it, tore down their ‘homes and got ready to move.
For the next few hours there was mild confusion because the orders kept being changed. Finally, after 10 days of marking time, the 8th began rolling again. Task Force Conley (named for the 8th’s commanding officer) moved out at 7 p.m., just as darkness was falling. In the days ahead, Colonel Tom Conley would operate with my advance guard, out in front and leading as he had prior to reaching the Meuse.
The tankers moved out smoothly, and after a few miles it was clear that the long rest period had not made any difference in the group’s motivation. The men of the 8th had retained their aggressive combat edge. In no time, the eager troops reached and crossed the Madon River and continued east to a location south of Crantenoy, where they bivouacked for the night. A quick glance at the map located the command about 16 miles southeast of Nancy. During one day, the tankers had moved 31 miles.
Before retiring, I studied my map some more. I saw that we were now about three miles from the Moselle River, a major obstacle that had to be breached before the attack to the east could be continued. In the morning it would be our first objective, and there was bound to be trouble. Militarily, the spot was so advantageous for a defender that it cried out for a rugged, determined defense. The enemy had had ample time to round up the necessary forces and to reorganize and dig them in.
Early on September 11, lead elements of the 8th reached the Moselle and moved to a site overlooking the town of Bayon on the opposite side. We quickly sized up the situation facing us. Elements of the 35th Infantry Division had established a small bridgehead at that location.
A large, important river with its bridges down and defended by a dug-in, aggressive enemy is a major obstacle to an attacking force. Tanks can attack to the river’s edge and fire on the opposite bank, but they do not assault the river. That is a job for infantry. They must either ford the river or, if it is too deep, cross over in assault boats. This is a difficult and dangerous operation because the infantry is exposed and vulnerable to enemy fire. Their mission is to cross any way they can, wrest a hunk of ground from the enemy and establish a bridgehead on the opposite side. During this complicated operation, the infantry is supported by artillery, so that the enemy will be pinned down while the infantry is exposed on the river. Once on the opposite bank, the infantry cannot hesitate, but must continue to fight and push back the enemy as succeeding waves of troops cross to help enlarge the bridgehead.
The goal of the assault is to push back enemy forces far enough so that they can no longer pour effective small-arms or artillery fire on the troops moving across the river. While the infantry and artillery engage the enemy, the engineers rush their bridging equipment to the riverbank, and when enemy fire lessens sufficiently, they work to quickly erect the appropriate bridge. The engineers also have an extremely dangerous mission, since they, too, are exposed and vulnerable as they work. The tanks are assembled nearby, and as soon as the bridge is completed, they begin crossing. Once on the other side, the tanks take over from the infantry and aggressively attack out of the bridgehead in typical armored style.
That is the way a river crossing is supposed to be made. However, as I had already learned many times, there are so many variables in combat that events rarely unfold as planned. The events that transpired at Bayon were an excellent example of plans gone wrong.
After the infantry had established its small bridgehead, aggressive enemy action kept them contained and prevented them from enlarging that bridgehead. The enemy was able to continue to bring effective fire on the damaged bridge site. The fire was heavy and accurate enough to deter the engineers from even beginning to construct a crossing for the tanks. The situation was getting no better, and the bridgehead was dangling by a thread. Someone in a position of authority must have recognized the danger and called for help from the tanks, which explained the abrupt departure of the 8th the evening before.
When their tanks reached the Moselle River and they found the bridge too badly damaged to cross, the men of the 8th Battalion should have backed off a bit–found cover and good firing positions and supported the infantry with direct covering fire concentrated on the opposite bank. But when they reached the river, the tankers quickly realized that the offensive had bogged down and sensed that not much was going right. They knew that something had to happen and that it was now up to them.
The first requirement was to get away from the bridge site quickly. The enemy had the location pinpointed and continued to pour fire onto it. So the lead elements of the 8th moved north and parallel to the river. Once out of enemy range, the tankers were able to pause and examine the problems and challenges that confronted them.
Commanding the advance guard, I stood with fellow Lieutenant William (Bill) J. Marshall, commander of the lead platoon of C Company. We stared at the mighty Moselle. Every man in the battalion knew that we were facing a formidable obstacle. To the north and south of our position, the Moselle was a wide, swiftly moving river that would certainly engulf tanks the moment they entered its waters. But there was something different about the part of the river at which we were now staring. We were fortunate to have reached the Moselle at this particular location.
At some point upstream, the river apparently had separated into three channels. So the part of the Moselle that we were analyzing appeared to have three fingers, and separating the fingers were sandy, gravelly spurs of land sprouting short, wild underbrush. Bill Marshall and I immediately recognized the exciting possibilities. Instead of one mighty river, we now faced three smaller, narrower rivers, which might be forded.
Fording the river now appeared to be at least an outside possibility. We were well aware, however, that there was another problem. The Canal de l’Est, which ran north to south and parallel to the Moselle, lay between us and the river. It had steep, soft, muddy sides and was wide and deep enough to permit the transit of large canal boats. This other formidable obstacle, like a massive tank trap, had to be overcome before we could even think of fording the Moselle.
Both Marshall and I knew that if ever there was a time to grab the bull by the horns, this was it. Although it seemed impossible, we knew that somehow we had to get ourselves across that canal and river.
I looked at Marshall and he looked at me. I asked, Bill, can you do it? Marshall with his jaw set and determination in his eyes, nodded, and declared, We’ll do our damnedest. Without another word, he spun on his heel and, having made a resolute decision, set in motion a series of remarkable events.
Marshall started the action by rapidly reconnoitering up the canal until he found the right spot for a crossing. If the depth of water in the canal had been normal, it would have been all over. But fortuitously, the locks somewhere had been opened or damaged, so the water in the bottom of the canal, though very muddy, was shallow. Marshall now pulled his platoon of tanks close to the canal and ordered the guns to open fire, pouring point-blank fire onto both sides of the canal. The high-explosive rounds, set on fuse delay, buried themselves in the muck and then exploded. The sides of the canal began to crumble. Large chunks of muck began to collect on the canal bottom, forming a rough bed. The continuous fire caused the banks to begin to collapse and increase the level of debris on the canal bed. Some abandoned railroad ties found nearby were dragged to the site and laid on top of the debris to give it some firmness and substance, hastily forming a rough ramp.
The moment of truth had now arrived. Marshall’s lead tank, driven by Corporal Ray Fisk, moved toward the broken bank and slowly, carefully slid down the steep slope, sending dirt and mud ahead of it onto the ramp. It then began to move slowly across the uneven ramp with its tracks churning and sliding through the low water as it inched along.
There was a loud roar as Fisk gunned his engine. The tank leaped off the ramp, its chevron tracks spinning wildly in the mud as it tried to get a grip on the steep, slippery bank. With the engine roaring in lowest gear and the tracks spinning, the tank gained only inches at a time, but it was moving. As the tank slowly climbed up the bank, its tracks began to bite into the higher, drier ground, and little by little it began to move more steadily. With a final roar, it leaped to the top of the bank. A tank had successfully forded the Canal de l’Est!
There was no time to celebrate. The hardest work was still ahead. Without hesitation, Fisk brought out the tow cable. Tankers grabbed it, dragged it across the canal ramp and hooked it to the front of the next tank. That tank, following the path of the first one, moved down the bank under its own power. Pulled by the first tank, it steadily negotiated the hazard and soon stood on the opposite bank. The process was repeated until the rest of the platoon was successfully across the canal. Each tank helped to progressively level the banks, making the journey easier for each succeeding tank, until they no longer needed to be towed.
For Marshall and his platoon this was a two-phase operation, and crossing the canal had been only the first phase. Now, what about the mighty Moselle? What good was crossing the canal if you were stranded between it and the river? Captain Gene Bush, commanding officer of Company C, let Marshall have his head. The rest of the company and battalion waited as he tackled the river.
As he had at the canal, Marshall again dismounted, reconnoitered the river in front of him, and tested the footing of the approaches. He waded into the river and determined the depth of the water. He quickly gathered the information that he needed and picked a crossing spot. Corporal Fisk’s tank eased down the bank and gingerly entered the water. Slowly, steadily, it moved across the riverbottom, and with each yard gained, the cold, swiftly moving water rose.
As the tank approached the midpoint, with Marshall (who, ironically, could not swim) hanging on to the gun tube, the water was dangerously high–already above the tracks and rising up the sides of the tank. They had reached the critical point. It was now or never. If the tank plunged forward into deeper water, its engine would surely be flooded and the tank would be stranded mid-river. Fisk, with one triumph behind him and knowing what to expect, gunned his engine. With a loud cough and roar, the tank leaped forward across the deep water and, without slackening its speed, moved into shallow water and up the bank. As it reached solid ground, water sprayed from its tracks. After letting the engine run to be sure that it had not absorbed too much water, Fisk eased the tank toward the next channel. He crossed the other two channels in the same manner.
As soon as Marshall had his platoon across, he established a small bridgehead on the east bank. Right behind his platoon came the rest of the company, then the rest of the battalion. Every tanker in the 8th knew that if one tank could do it, they could do it, too. The Moselle became a beehive of activity.
It was not necessary to follow the first tank’s path across the river. There was ample room, so the tanks fanned out and picked their own crossing points. As was to be expected, some found water too deep or hesitated a bit too long in the deepest water before gunning the engine–and some tanks conked out. The tankers were prepared for this, and those already across had their tow cables ready. They quickly dragged their momentarily stranded brothers out of the river.
By the time darkness fell, all four tank companies of the 8th Tank Battalion not only had successfully crossed the canal and river but also had seized the dominating ground on the east side and thwarted a vicious counterattack. Astoundingly, a tank battalion had crossed a major river without a bridge. No military service school could have conceived an operation like it. This was truly an unprecedented river crossing by tanks.
A second task force of Combat Command B, built around an armored infantry battalion, was assigned the mission of crossing the Moselle at Bainville-aux-Miroirs, about 21Ž2 miles south of Bayon. The infantry was to establish a bridgehead there so that the engineers could repair a bridge that had been blown up.
After waiting for the engineers to bring boats, which did not arrive, one company found a ford and crossed the river. Other companies seeking to cross elsewhere were repulsed by strong enemy opposition. With such little progress, the force was ordered to withdraw and follow the tank crossing at Bayon.
Two days after the 8th’s unprecedented crossing, Combat Command A of the 4th Armored Division crossed the Moselle at Dieulouard, north of Nancy. They made a traditional crossing, over a bridge that had been established by the 80th Infantry Division. It is the Moselle crossing at Dieulouard that is studied by students at Fort Leavenworth and Fort Knox.
The 8th’s crossing may have had strategic implications that reached far beyond the bridge site at Bayon. There were rumors within the division that Montgomery wished to halt Patton’s progress so that he could have the whole show to himself in the north. Patton, reportedly, was fighting hard to save a piece of the action for himself. Even though his logistical support had been cut to the bone, he still believed that he could do more than Montgomery if they gave him the chance, and he certainly wanted to keep trying.
Facing little support from his superiors, Patton reportedly had agreed to pull back if the Moselle could not be bridged by September 14. By crossing on the 11th and bridging on the 12th, the 8th Tank Battalion and Combat Command B more than met Patton’s deadline. If there was any truth to the circulating reports, the 8th Battalion’s action more than vindicated the Third Army commander.
This article was written by Albin F. Irzyk and originally appeared in the September 1997 issue of World War II magazine. For more great articles subscribe to World War II magazine today!