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Arnaville, 1944: The U.S. XX Corps Crosses the Moselle
The Big Picture
On June 6, 1944 the Allies landed successfully in Normandy. After savage battles in the hedgerows the troops pushed inland and by August 25 the Seine line was reached. What should be done next? Within striking distance was the Ruhr, the heart that pumped industrial lifeblood to the German forces. Ruhr was selected by SHAEF (Supreme Headquarters Allied Forces Europe) planners as the most practical goal for post OVERLORD operations.
There were four routes from northern France to the Ruhr:
1. by way of the flatlands of easily flooded Flanders;
2. via Amiens, Maubeuge, and Liege along the northern edge of the Ardennes;
3. through the hilly woodland of the Ardennes;
4. through Metz, the Saar, and Frankfurt
Having eliminated Flanders and the Ardennes on the basis of terrain considerations, the planners recommended that the Allies advance north and south of the Ardennes with mutually supporting forces on a broad front oriented on Liege and on Metz. Τhey also indicated that the main effort should be made northeastward along the direct route to the Ruhr.
The 21st Army Group (Montgomery) was to go northeast from the Seine toward the Ruhr in the main effort north of the Ardennes, and the 12th Army Group (Bradley) was to go eastward in a subsidiary drive. On August 22, Eisenhower, accepting Montgomery’s proposals, decided to send Hodges (1st US Army) north of the Ardennes, in an effort to augment Montgomery’s striking power. So three armies were to drive northeast from the lower Seine (1st Canadian, 2nd British, and 1st U.S.) toward the Ruhr. The 3rd U.S. Army, alone, was to make the subsidiary thrust east from the upper Seine and pass south of the Ardennes. Eisenhower also decided to allocate the bulk of the 12th Army Group stocks of gasoline to Hodges, thereby depriving Patton’s 3rd Army of adequate supplies for a long strike toward the Saar.
The 3rd Army
Patton was not happy, to say the least, with the Supreme Commander’s decision, but having about a week’s supply of fuel on hand he wished to make good use of it. The Third Army south of Paris consisted of two corps, the XII and the XX, standing abreast. Beyond them lied the rivers: Marne, Vesle, Aisne, Meuse and Moselle. Farther east, one hundred miles away, was the Rhine River itself, the objective of the Third Army pursuit. This series of water obstacles would normally discourage any attacker, but the 3rd Army did not believe the Germans capable of organizing serious resistance. And that was true. The XX Corps liberated Reims on 30 August and at the same afternoon drove eastward toward Verdun, seventy miles away. By noon on 31 August, 7th Armored Division tanks were in Verdun and across the Meuse river, and on the first day of September, XX Corps was across the Meuse in strength. And there it stopped. On August 30, the 12th Army Group had notified the 3rd Army that no appreciable gasoline stocks would be forthcoming until at least 3 September. Unable to do anything more the Corps sent reconnaissance units as far east as the Moselle River. The optimistic reports they brought back of a panic-stricken enemy only deepened the frustration of the paralyzed units waiting for gasoline. By the afternoon of 3 September enough gasoline was on hand, and late in the evening of 5 September the XX Corps commander, Major General Walton H. Walker, returned from 3rd Army headquarters with the long-awaited word to resume the offensive.
The XX Corps
Early the next morning, General Walker directed seizure of crossings on the Sarre River, some thirty miles east of the Moselle, and, upon Army order, continuation of the advance to Mainz on the Rhine. The 7th Armored Division, under command of Major General Lindsay McD. Silvester, was ordered to cross the Moselle in advance of the infantry, apparently in the hope that the armor might still find a bridge intact. If Metz itself did not fall "like a ripe plum," the armor was to bypass it and strike straight for the Sarre River and its bridges. The two cities that formed the anchor positions for the German line of resistance in front of XX Corps (Metz and Thionville) were labeled intermediate objectives and assigned to the 5th and 90th Infantry Divisions, respectively. Unfortunately the XX Corps plan was based on the assumption that the main enemy stand would be made east of the Sarre River behind the Siegfried Line. In reality Hitler had no intention of permitting a withdrawal from the Metz-Thionville area; when gasoline became available and XX Corps troops attacked eastward toward the Moselle, they discovered that strong and organized German forces opposed them. enemy only deepened the frustration of the paralyzed units waiting for gasoline. By the afternoon of 3 September enough gasoline was on hand, and late in the evening of 5 September the XX Corps commander, Major General Walton H. Walker, returned from 3rd Army headquarters with the long-awaited word to resume the offensive.
Reaching the Moselle
The 7th Armored Division commenced its advance as planned. Encountering little resistance initially, the force met stiffening opposition as the day wore on. The Moselle River was reached during the night; meanwhile information came from the recon units that no bridges remained on the river.
The 5th Infantry Division had been ordered to "pin onto" the tail of the 7th Armored Division and be prepared to fight for a bridgehead across the Moselle in the event that the armored attack should fail. At about noon on 7 September, Major General S. LeRoy Irwin was informed that his Division was to pass through the armor and establish a bridgehead. By this time his 11th Infantry Regiment was deployed and advancing with two battalions forward in widely separated columns, fighting to reach the Moselle. The regimental commander, Colonel Yuill, had directed his 3rd Battalion to reach the river in the vicinity of Dornot, and his 1st Battalion to capture Arnaville. As night approached, the 11th Infantry toiled slowly toward the high ground overlooking the river.
At about 1800, 7 September, XX Corps told General Irwin to cross the Moselle on the following morning. The crossing was to be made at Dornot. The story of the Dornot crossing is very interesting in itself, but not the subject of this article. Suffice is to say that a bridgehead was established on 8 September by men from the 2nd Btn/11th Rgt and the 23rd Arm. Btn/7th Arm. Div. Despite numerous German counterattacks the Americans held their positions for three days. It is characteristic that almost all officers in the bridgehead were either killed or wounded. During the night 10/11 September the bridgehead was withdrawn because another crossing, two and a half miles south of Dornot, appeared to be much more promising.
A Second Crossing
Late on 8 September General Irwin had ordered the commander of the 10th Infantry Regiment, Col. Robert P. Bell, to force a second crossing of the Moselle near the village of Arnaville. General Irwin took this step after having decided that the Dornot bridgehead was too rigidly contained to be exploited successfully. The date of crossing had set for 10 September. After reconnoitering the area, Colonel Bell issued his attack order on 1400, 10 September. The 1st Battalion was to lead the assault and capture Hill 386 in the Bois des Anneaux. The 2nd Battalion was to follow and capture the Côte de Faye (Hills 325, 370, and 369). The 3rd Battalion was initially to hold its positions on the high ground in the vicinity of Arnaville, support the operations by fire as called for by the assault battalions, and protect the crossing site. A few things about the geography of the crossing site are necessary now. held their positions for three days. It is characteristic that almost all officers in the bridgehead were either killed or wounded. During the night 10/11 September the bridgehead was withdrawn because another crossing, two and a half miles south of Dornot, appeared to be much more promising.
From West to East: Arnaville, the railroad truck, the canal and the Moselle River
From West to East: The Moselle River, Voisage Farm, Hills 325-370-369(north), Hill 386(south)
The Geography of the Crossing Site
Arnaville is a tiny village just west of the railroad track that paralleled the Moselle. Parallel to the railroad track and the river was a deep canal and after it there were approximately 200 yards of open, marshy land. The riverbank itself was suitable for launching assault boats.
Beyond the river was another stretch of some 500 yards of open, marshy flatland. A network of trails through it led to Voisage Farm. From the northsouth Metz highway, the ground rose abruptly to the dominating east-bank hills.
Two of these, Hill 386 in the Bois des Anneaux, in the south, and the wooded Côte de Faye (Hills 325, 370, and 369), in the north, offered natural defensive positions and were assigned as objectives to the 1st and 2nd Battalion, respectively.
Southeast of Voisage Farm on the steep slopes of the east-bank hills stood the village of Arry, and northwest of the Côte de Faye and beside the river, the village of Corny. characteristic that almost all officers in the bridgehead were either killed or wounded. During the night 10/11 September the bridgehead was withdrawn because another crossing, two and a half miles south of Dornot, appeared to be much more promising.
The city of Metz was surrounded by a system of fortifications. These forts were considered as outmoded, by WW II standards, nevertheless they caused a lot of trouble to the attackers.
The defense of Metz itself was charged to a miscellany of troops from the city's military schools, fortress troops, and physically unfit, all brigaded together under Division Number 462. Although this "division" was an organizational makeshift commanded by the faculty and administrative personnel of the Metz military schools, most of the student troops had been picked for further training as officers and noncommissioned officers and were among the elite of the German Army. Most of these officers and men had used the Metz vicinity for school maneuvers and knew the terrain thoroughly.
Just north of the Voisage Farm run the boundary between the XIII SS Corps (north) and the XLVII Panzer Corps (south), and also the boundary between Division No 462 (north) and the 3rd Panzer Grenadier Division (south). South of Metz, the 17 SS Panzer Grenadier Division “Götz von Berlichingen” was held in reserve. These were the forces the XX Corps had to face.
1st Battalion, the Southern Sector
Company A was the first to cross the Moselle; a few scattered rounds were received, but no casualties were reported. On the far shore, the company commander, Capt. Elias R. Vick, Jr., reorganized his men and by 0200 (September 10) was ready to move toward the objective. In the meantime two platoons of Company C were also across the river.
The 2nd and 3rd Platoons of Company A deployed and advanced in the face of machine gun fire, which pinned the men to the ditches on either side of the Voisage Farm. The company commander, Captain Vick, moving to the highway in an attempt to get his platoons in motion again, was hit by the machine gun fire. He died of wounds before he could be evacuated.
The battalion commander, Major Haughey, who had crossed with Company C, was well aware that, with daylight fast approaching, permitting his battalion to be caught under observation on the exposed flatland would be virtual suicide. Since Companies A and C were stalled he sent his S-2, 1st Lt. Leo E. Harris to reconnoiter quickly for the most favorable route to Hill 386. When Lieutenant Harris found what he believed to be an avenue of approach, he delayed no longer. Assembling one platoon of Company A and two of Company C, he led a dash past Voisage Farm and up the hill. His action was successful and at about 0800 the battalion’s three companies (Company B had also crossed the river) were firmly on the objective and repulsed a minor German counterattack. At noon the Germans returned in strength. Shells from German tanks began to burst in the fir trees above Company C's command post at the southern edge of the woods. The command group was badly hit: the radio operator was killed and the company commander, Captain Davis, was wounded in both legs. He remained in action, calling for artillery and mortar support to stop the tanks. He finally collapsed and was started back on a stretcher, only to be hit a second time by shell fragments and killed.
The German tanks were not followed by infantry and they were careful to remain outside effective bazooka range. Instead of pushing forward they moved across the battalion’s front firing the exposed positions on the bare southern nose of Hill 386. Suddenly P-47 fighter-bombers, of the 406 Fighter Bomber Group, entered the battle. They bombed and strafed the tanks and the Germans withdrew. The seriousness of the German counterattack led the Regiment Commander, Colonel Bell, to order his 3rd Battalion, with two companies (I and K), to cross the river and capture Arry, in order to secure the bridgehead’s southern flank. The Germans launched no more counterattacks against Hill 386 during the afternoon, but shellfire and long-range machine gun fire harassed the men there for the rest of the day.
At the first sign of light the next morning elements of the 3rd Panzer Grenadier and 17th SS Panzer Grenadier Divisions launched a two-pronged attack against the 1st Battalion, on Hill 386. The counterattack was successfully repulsed, with many German tanks and assault guns destroyed.
The 3rd Battalion
Companies I and K crossed the river at about 1735 (September 10). The companies advanced towards Arry, holding up briefly on the outskirts while P-47's and artillery bombarded the objective. Then the rifle companies continued against virtually no resistance, ferreting the enemy from houses and cellars where he had sought cover from the bombardment. The town was cleared by 2130, and the regimental commander, Colonel Bell, ordered the companies to pull back to Voisage Farm. Company C of the 1st Battalion was ordered to occupy the town. It is not clear if Company C moved in too late or the 3rd Battalion companies left too fast, in any case when Company C men entered Arry, at 0300, found that the Germans had reoccupied the town. Lieutenant Dille, the company commander was killed. At 0430 heavy artillery fire, from both sides, blanketed the area. Company C, with only 43 men, was permitted to withdraw at 0800 (September 11). At about 1900 the two remaining companies of the 3rd Battalion and the Battalion Commander, Major Shipley, crossed the Moselle.
2nd Battalion, the Northern Sector
Leaving the southern sector for the time we will move now north and follow the 2nd Battalion. Company F, leading the 2nd Battalion, had begun its move in assault boats at 0430. Captain Witt, Company F commander, passed his company through just at daybreak. Facing negligible resistance the company passed the Hills 369 and 370 and continued north toward Hill 325.
Finding Hill 325 to be a bare, exposed knob, Captain Witt halted his company, and the men began to dig in along the eastern and northwestern edges of the woods where they had unrestricted fields of fire against Hill 325.
Close behind the leading company came Company G, its men began to dig in across the eastern and southeastern brow of Hill 370 under cover of the woods. Company E, minus one platoon, was held in reserve on the reverse slope of Hill 370. Through the day (September 10), enemy action against the 2nd Battalion was confined to scattered and occasional mortar and artillery fire until just at dusk a platoon of enemy tanks cruised across the bald crest of Hill 325, apparently in a reconnaissance move. When artillery concentrations were called for and received, the enemy tanks withdrew.
At about 0500 (September 11) a platoon of German tanks, followed by approximately a company of infantry came from the direction of the town of Vezon toward that portion of the 2nd Battalion lines which rimmed the edge of the Bois de Gaumont along Hill 370. The tanks provided fire support while the accompanying infantry closed in. With the defenders pinned to their positions by the supporting fire, the German infantry worked in close, and fighting raged at hand-grenade range. Forward elements of Company F began to fall back some fifty yards and for a few minutes the situation looked almost hopeless. Capt. Lewis R. Anderson, however, the Company G commander, managed to co-ordinate the fire of a near-by section of heavy machine guns, his riflemen, and the 81-mm. mortars. Their efforts broke the enemy attack. Communication with supporting artillery was established, and, as the enemy withdrew, heavy concentrations fell on the German rear. Although the line had held, the enemy counterattack had cost the 2nd Battalion slightly over a hundred casualties, further stretching the battalion's overextended manpower.
The northern sector was further reinforced with the 3rd Battalion of the 11th Infantry Regiment, which took positions outside the town of Corny.
Moselle River Bridge, Arnaville
Expanding the Bridgehead
The early hours of 12 September were marked with a new German counterattack against the whole bridgehead. The attack was well supported by artillery and tank fire, but failed. The repulse of the continuous German counterattacks was not without a cost, because the infantry companies were seriously depleted. On the other hand U.S. engineers made possible for tanks, tank destroyers and artillery to cross the river.
On September 14 XX Corps issued a new field order that instructed the 5th Division to expand its bridgehead and continue the attack to capture Metz, while the 7th Armored Division was to cross into the bridgehead and make a swinging movement around the right flank through Mardigny.
The attack commenced the next morning. Despite heavy ground fog and muddy footing the attack was a success.
With a firm northern anchor in Corny, southern anchors in Mardigny and Vittonville, possession of the vicinity's dominant terrain features, Hill 396 and Hill 400, and two substantial bridges providing ready access, the Arnaville bridgehead could be considered secure. Five days of bitter fighting had brought XX Corps its first successful Moselle crossing at a cost to the 10th Infantry Regiment alone of approximately 25 officers and 700 men.
The attacks to break out of the bridgehead and capture Metz began again in early morning, 16 September, with the capture of Lorry by elements of CCB. Enemy guns were still able to shell the bridgehead area, including the bridge sites. Not until 22 November did the battle for Metz come to a close with the formal cessation of hostilities and the fall of the city. Four of the major forts still held out and it was not until 8 December that the last of them, Fort Driant, capitulated.
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MacDonald, Charles B. and Sidney T. Mathews. Three Battles: Arnaville, Altuzzo and Schmidt. U.S. Army in World War II: The European Theater of Operations. 1952. Reprint. Washington, DC: Office of the Chief of Military History, U.S. Army, 1993.
Hogan, Jr., David W. Northern France: The U.S. Army Campaigns of World War II. U.S. Army, Center of Military History, 1995.