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When the Germans fought back at Mortain, the violence pivoted around a patch of high ground and the American artillerymen trapped there.

War, as historian Bruce Catton once wrote, sometimes “went by a queer script of its own,” putting a jackboot down on some anonymous, unlikely place like Shiloh Church or Kasserine or Anzio or Sainte-Mère-Église. Such a place was the French village of Mortain, home to 1,300, 19 miles east of Avranches amid broken terrain dubbed the “Norman Switzerland” in a triumph of tourist-bureau ebullience over geography. The town’s name was said to derive from Maurus, a reference to Moors in the Roman army. Renowned for cutlery, first of pewter and then of stainless steel, Mortain in recent times also had become a mining and market hub, linking inland communes with the coast. Since the Allied invasion of Normandy began on June 6, 1944, thousands of refugees from the battered invasion zone had shuffled through, among them children wearing tags with the addresses of relatives to contact should their mothers fall dead.

The last German occupier in Mortain had been gunned down on August 3 by a French policeman armed with a 19thcentury rifle and one bullet. Hours later, the U.S. 1st Infantry Division arrived, only to move along on August 6, supplanted on that warm, luminous Sunday by the 30th Infantry Division. Cheering civilians tossed flowers at the newcomers in their grinding trucks as they rumbled past busy cafés and hotels. Known as Old Hickory for its National Guard roots in Tennessee and the Carolinas, the 30th Division still was licking wounds from the late-July offensive aimed at breaking the Normandy stalemate, Operation Cobra, particularly the fratricidal bombing by American aircraft in the first two days that killed 136 GIs and wounded hundreds more, nearly all in the 30th Division. Two of the division’s nine infantry battalions had been dispatched elsewhere; the rest now burrowed in across a seven-mile front.

Of keen interest was a stony, steep hill called Montjoie, looming over Mortain to the east and so named because from here joyful pilgrims first caught sight of the soaring abbey at Mont Saint-Michel, 27 miles distant. To GIs the mile-long escarpment was simply Hill 314, after its height in meters; 700 men from the 2nd Battalion of the 120th Infantry chuffed to the crest before scratching at the skimpy fieldworks left by the 1st Division.

With them was Second Lieutenant Robert L. Weiss, a tall, strapping artillery forward observer who was wearing the same wool serge shirt his father, a Jewish immigrant from Hungary, had worn in World War I. In addition to binoculars on a tripod, Weiss, 21, lugged a 35-pound SCR-610 radio in a saddle-soaped leather case; the FM set had a five-mile range, just enough to reach the howitzer batteries dug in to the west. Recently he had written his mother in Indiana to complain that “whenever you’re in the fight you never know how it is going; that’s the way it always is,” and noting, “I hope I get a chance to do a little shooting on my own the next few days.” His weary comrades hoped only for a little rest.

This they would not get. The assessment of British general Bernard L. Montgomery, commander of Allied ground forces in Normandy, that “the enemy situation is far from good” was unarguable, and that very vulnerability made the Germans desperate. From his East Prussian headquarters a thousand miles to the east, Hitler detected “a unique opportunity, which will never return…, to drive into an extremely exposed enemy area.” At his direction, a counterattack spearheaded by four panzer divisions was to blast through Mortain to Avranches, cleaving George S. Patton’s Third Army from Courtney H. Hodges’s First Army and, if not cudgeling the invaders back to their ships, at least re-imposing the static war of early summer. In a message sent through high command, Hitler added a directive for his commander in the west, Field Marshal Günther von Kluge: “Tell Kluge that he should keep his eyes riveted to the front and on the enemy without ever looking backward.”

Kluge, who had commanded an army group on the Eastern Front for two years and brought to France a reputation as a fearless and tenacious innovator, replied that “such an attack if not immediately successful” would risk envelopment and annihilation. Even if the spearhead reached Avranches, the force would be too weak to hold its gains against Allied air, artillery, and armor. Eight German divisions had already been obliterated during July fighting in and below northwest France’s Cotentin Peninsula, plus others written off in Brittany and the isolated Channel Islands. Six replacement divisions had recently arrived on the Norman front from southern France and Pas-de-Calais, permitting a reorganization of sorts: Panzer Group West was rechristened Fifth Panzer Army, with a dozen divisions in four corps, and Seventh Army counted 16 divisions. Yet this host was fragile and dispirited. Hitler waved away all caviling. The attack would go forward, as ordered, “recklessly to the sea, regardless of the risk.”

Swirling fog lifted and descended with stage-curtain melodrama in the balmy small hours of August 7. Shortly after 1 a.m., American pickets reported a spatter of rifle fire, followed by the distinctive growl of panzers on the hunt. Then the attack slammed against the 30th Division front in scalding, scarlet gusts: 26,000 Germans in the first echelon, with 120 tanks crewed by men in black uniforms evocative of the old imperial cavalry. Machine guns cackled, and the percussive boom of tank main guns rippled up and down the line. American howitzers barked back, firing by earshot at bent shadows barely 1,000 yards ahead. GIs scrambled among firing positions to simulate greater numbers; pockets here and there were cut off in what one soldier described as “an all-gone feeling.” Wounded men mewed in the night.

Almost nothing went right in the German attack. A stricken Allied fighter-bomber smashed into the lead tank of the 1st SS Panzer Division, blocking the column for hours. Only three of six enemy spearheads surged forward on time. The right wing, anchored by the 116th Panzer Division, hardly budged; the commander would be sacked for “uninspired and negative” leadership. Of 300 Luftwaffe fighters promised for the battle, not one reached the front.

The German weight fell heaviest on Saint-Barthélemy, a crossroads two miles north of Mortain. Aiming at muzzle flashes, American tank destroyer crews here demolished a Panther with a 3-inch slug at 50 yards, then another at 30 yards; both slewed across the road, burning with white fury. GIs at one roadblock let the panzers roll through, then butchered the grenadiers trailing behind. The 1st Battalion of the 117th Infantry suffered 350 casualties and retired to a hillside 1,000 yards west of Saint-Barthélemy, but the German offensive had been delayed six hours, with 40 panzers soon crippled. Meanwhile, at the Abbaye Blanche, a 12th-century stone heap just north of Mortain, a platoon of 66 men with bazookas and artillery repelled an SS regiment. GIs stood fast against tanks, flamethrowers, and grenades. More than 60 enemy vehicles would be knocked out hub to hub to hub.

Dawn, that pitiless revealer of exigencies, unmasked the German predicament. Four armored divisions—from north to south, the 116th Panzer, the 2nd Panzer, and the 1st and 2nd SS Panzer—stood exposed and blinking in the brilliant sunshine once the fog burned off. “First really large concentration of enemy tanks seen since D-Day,” a Royal Air Force patrol reported. Typhoon fighter-bombers soon scalded the German ranks with 2,000 60-pound rockets and 20mm cannon rounds the size of tent pegs. Joined by formations of Thunderbolts and Hurricanes, the planes attacked until dusk in a shark frenzy.

“Hundreds of German troops began spilling out into the road to spring for the open fields and hedgerows,” a Typhoon pilot reported. Only a few dozen tanks and trucks were actually demolished from the air, and more than a few sorties mistakenly hit American revetments. But scores of other vehicles were abandoned under the onslaught or were wrecked by field artillery: a dozen battalions—144 tubes—raked the two roads leading west from Saint-Barthélemy. A panzer corps headquarters described the attacks as “well-nigh unendurable,” and the German Seventh Army on August 7 conceded that “the actual attack has been at a standstill since 1300 hours.”

The only exception to the “exceptionally poor start,” as Seventh Army described the offensive, was a narrow advance of four miles by the 2nd Panzer Division in the north, and the successful seizure of Mortain by the 2nd SS Panzer Division. Das Reich, as the 2nd SS Panzer was known, had struck at 3 a.m. on Monday in three columns, overrunning a roadblock to the south, capturing antitank guns to the north, and infiltrating through the 120th Infantry with help from two local French collaborators. Wraiths in coal-scuttle helmets darted down the village streets, kicking in doors and poking through cellars.

Thirty officers and men from the 2nd Battalion command post tiptoed out a back exit of the Hôtel de la Poste to hide in a house 400 yards away. Most, including the battalion commander and a soldier armed only with an ax, would later be captured by the Germans while trying to creep off, though half a dozen escaped detection for a week, living on garden vegetables and food pilfered from the local hospital larder. A radioed query from the 30th Division headquarters six miles to the west—“What does your situation look like down there?”— drew a spare reply: “Looks like hell.”

It also looked like hell from Hill 314, but at least the view was majestic. Lieutenant Weiss, with his field glasses and Signal Corps radio, had called in his first fire mission at 6 a.m., shooting only by sound and by map coordinates after sentries reported 400 enemy troops scrabbling up the east slope. From a stone outcropping on the hill’s southern lip, among scrub pines and the animal fragrance of summer pastures, Weiss soon saw columns of German soldiers threading the plain below, including bicycle troops with rifles slung across their shoulders. Again he murmured incantations into the radio handset. Moments later, rushing shells fell in splashes of fire and the singing fragments that gunners called Big Iron. German mortar and 88mm shells answered, pummeling Montjoie’s rocky shoulders. The assault came from all sides. Late in the afternoon Weiss radioed, “Enemy N, S, E, W.” During a rare lull, one GI later wrote, “No birds were singing. No leaves were moving. No wind was blowing.”

Nor were the Germans advancing. Artillery curtains directed from Hill 314 paralyzed Das Reich, kept the 17th SS Panzergrenadier Division from scaling the hill, and prevented a collapse of the U.S. 30th Division’s southern flank. White phosphorus from American shells forced enemy troops into the open, where they frantically brushed the burning flakes from skin and uniform; high-explosive shells then cut them to scraps. By nightfall, the German offensive had stalled completely: five divisions had been unable to punch through a single American division that had fewer than 6,000 infantrymen. “If only the Germans will go on attacking at Mortain for a few more days,” Montgomery cabled the British Army’s ranking officer, Field Marshal Alan Brooke, that evening, “it seems that they might not be able to get away.”

In this the enemy complied. Positions changed little on Tuesday, August 8, another pellucid day for killing, both on the wing and by observed artillery fire. Guns crashed and heaved around the clock. “Bruised them badly,” Weiss radioed after one fire mission left spiraling smoke columns visible for miles.

Although convinced that the offensive had failed, Kluge told his lieutenants, “We have to risk everything.” For four more days, Hill 314 remained what a German officer called a “thorn in the flesh.” Hitler again demanded on August 9 that “the Allied invasion front be rolled up” with a renewed lunge toward Avranches by an improvised strike force under the Fifth Panzer Army commander, General Heinrich Eberbach. Arriving on the battlefield with little more than a radio truck, Eberbach told Kluge that the task was both impossible and “very unpleasant.” At 6:20 p.m. that Wednesday, an SS officer scrambled up Montjoie under a white flag to demand the Americans capitulate within 90 minutes or be “blown to bits.” Wounded GIs in slit trenches yelled, “No, no, don’t surrender,” and the senior officer on the hill, First Lieutenant Ralph A. Kerley, a lanky Texan, sent the envoy packing with a string of profanities. Five artillery battalions shattered a subsequent attack by bellowing Germans who fired machine guns and flicked grenades. Kerley called down one fire mission on his own command post. The field-gray tide receded.

Each night more slain soldiers on Hill 314 were tucked into makeshift morgues between the rocks after their bodies were searched for food and ammunition. Officers hoped that in removing the dead from sight they would bolster morale, but Montjoie reeked of men transformed into carrion. Each day a sergeant in Lieutenant Weiss’s small forward observer party set their precious radio batteries on a rocky shelf and let the sun warm them to squeeze out a bit more power. Foragers filled canteens from a scummy cistern and found turnips, cabbages, and a few rabbits in a hutch. An effort to shoot medical supplies to the hilltop garrison in empty artillery smoke shells failed: G-forces shattered morphine syrettes and plasma bottles, and even crushed surgical tape into flat disks. A dozen C-47s using blue and orange parachutes sprinkled rations and other supplies over the hillcrest at 4:30 p.m. on August 10, but half the bundles drifted beyond the American perimeter into no man’s land. On the night of August 11, the frustrated 30th Division chief of staff declared, “I want Mortain demolished…. Burn it up so nothing can live there.” Artillery scourged the village like brimstone.

And then the battle ended. Even Hitler acknowledged futility. “The attack failed,” he said ominously, “because Field Marshal von Kluge wanted it to fail.” Sitting at a table in La Roche-Guyon with a map spread before him, Kluge tapped Avranches with his finger and said, “This is where I lose my reputation as a soldier.” Before dawn on August 12, German columns skulked off to the north and east. A relief regiment from the 35th Division hiked up Hill 314 to carry off 300 dead and wounded; another 370 men walked down, including Lieutenants Weiss and Kerley. The 30th Division alone had suffered 1,800 casualties in the six-day brawl for Mortain, and other units together tallied almost as many.

Survivors would be fed, decorated, and returned to the fight. General J. Lawton Collins, whose VII Corps served as the point of the spear in Operation Cobra, later called the 30th Division’s performance at Hill 314 “one of the outstanding small-unit actions of World War II.” They had halted the left wing of the German counterattack and prevented a drive through to Avranches.

American artillery had once again displayed the killing prowess that had made it the king of battle since the Boston bookseller Henry Knox turned to gunnery in the Revolution. Here too the U.S. Army had asserted a dominance on the battlefield—with firepower, tenacity, and a credible display of combined arms competence—that would only intensify over the next eight months, as the campaign for Europe grew ever more feverish.

French civilians returning to wrecked Mortain “stood crying and rocking back and forth, as though in prayer,” a witness reported. GIs made puns about whether yet another town had been liberated or “ob-liberated.” Lieutenant Weiss, ever the dutiful son, sat down on August 13, and scribbled a letter. “Not much to write home about from here,” he wrote. “You know more about what goes on than we do.”


Main text excerpted from THE GUNS AT LAST LIGHT: The War in Western Europe, 1944-1945 by Rick Atkinson. Copyright © 2013 by Rick Atkinson. Reprinted by arrangement with Henry Holt and Company, LLC. All rights reserved.

Originally published in the August 2013 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.