The French village of Mortain sits halfway up the western slope of what during World War II the U.S. Army referred to as Hill 314. The promontory’s highest point, 314 meters above sea level (about 600 feet above the valley floor), overlooks a junction from which the area’s only main road runs straight for about eight miles, west by southwest, to the town of Saint-Hilairedu-Harcouët. From there it is another 15 miles to Avranches, on the Mont-Saint-Michel Bay estuary, the point where U.S. forces in July 1944 broke out of the Cotentin Peninsula to turn the flank of the German army in Normandy.
Hill 314 (listed in some histories as Hill 317) is a perfect observation post. A forward observer with radio communications to enough artillery batteries could prevent an armored division from moving down the Mortain–Saint-Hilaire road. And that is exactly what happened when German forces launched an offensive meant to drive the Allies back into the sea.
By the end of July senior German commanders knew they had lost the battle to contain the Allied invasion. Most believed they should fall back into the French interior to re-establish a consolidated defensive position. But Adolf Hitler, living increasingly in his own strategic dream world, ordered a massive armored counterattack to reverse the breakout and cut off those American units that had already passed through the breach. The lead echelon of the German attack comprised three panzer divisions abreast, from Chérencé-le-Roussel to Mortain, a five-mile front. Field Marshal Günther von Kluge tasked one panzer division in the second echelon with advancing to Avranches and capturing the critical bridge at Pontaubault, across which Lt. Gen. George S. Patton’s newly activated Third Army was pouring as it advanced from Normandy into Brittany.
When the German attack started early on August 7, the 2nd SS Panzer Division struck in two columns, north and south of Mortain, capturing the command post of the U.S. 30th Infantry Division’s 2nd Battalion, 120th Infantry Regiment, inside the town. The main body of the 2nd Battalion remained entrenched around the summit of Hill 314, which the Germans surrounded and sealed off. Two forward observers of the 230th Field Artillery Battalion, 1st Lt. Charles A. Barts and 2nd Lt. Robert L. Weiss, sat within a few feet of Hill 314’s summit and could see and call in fire on everything that tried to move down the road below. Until the Germans eliminated the Americans on Hill 314, the southern arm of their counterattack wasn’t going anywhere.
Captain Reynold C. Erichson assumed command of the position as the 17th SS Panzer Grenadier Division threw everything it had (a regiment-sized force) at Hill 314. The battle raged for five days, with Barts and Weiss also calling in close defensive fire around the hilltop. When the beleaguered GIs ran low on ammunition, rations, medical supplies and radio batteries, air crews made several attempts to resupply them by parachute, but less than half the supplies landed within the American perimeter. French farmers, meanwhile, risked their lives to smuggle food to the Americans.
As casualties mounted and the Americans’ situation deteriorated, Lt. Col. Lewis D. Vieman, commander of the 230th FA Battalion, hatched the idea of taking the leaflets out of propaganda shell cases and repacking them with medical supplies. Artillery crews would then fire the rounds into the center of the American position. Test shots proved the concept workable, and two other battalions also started firing the supply-carrying rounds.
The 2nd Battalion hung on grimly until finally relieved a little after noon on August 12. By that time more than 300 of the 700 GIs who’d started the battle had been killed or wounded, but the battalion had fought one of the war’s outstanding small-unit actions. Erichson and company commanders Capt. Delmont K. Byrn, 1st Lt. Ralph A. Kerley, 1st Lt. Joseph C. Reaser and 1st Lt. Ronal E. Woody Jr. each received the Distinguished Service Cross, and the battalion itself earned the Presidential Unit Citation. The 2nd Battalion did not stop the German counteroffensive single-handedly, but its defense of Hill 314 halted the left wing of the attack and completely disrupted the German scheme of maneuver. The failure at Mortain left the German army overextended and off balance, which led to greater losses in the subsequent struggle for the Falaise Pocket.
Today the top of Hill 314 is a carefully preserved park. Traces of the American fighting positions remain around the hill’s crest, near a black granite plinth commemorating those 30th Infantry Division soldiers killed during the battle. Barts’ and Weiss’ observation post still overlooks the once-vital road, and a memorial chapel rises from the rocky summit, with plaques and stained-glass panels commemorating the combat that once took place there.
Originally published in the March 2011 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.