Foreword and Introduction
Table of Contents
The Moselle Bridgehead
On July 21, 1944, the 212th Armored Field Artillery Battalion made its second landing on French soil -- second because it had participated in the MeuseArgonne and St. Mihiel engagements in World War I -- in the vicinity of St. Germain, a small town southeast of Cherbourg. Eight days later it was to taste its first combat in World War II. On July 27th,while the battalion was in its assembly area at Les Mesnils, word was received that the German Normandy line, which had been holding so tenaciously to St. Lo and the Lessay Periers Road, was suddenly disintegrating, and the division was alerted for movement the next day to exploit a break-through. A part of the division moved as planned, but congested traffic conditions held back the remaining forces, and the 212th did not move until the next day.
At 0830 July 29, as part of Combat Command A, the battalion moved from its assembly area south through shattered La Haye-de-Puits and decayed Lessay to its first engagement near the vil- lage of Gratot, a few miles northwest of Coutances. Resistance on high ground across the Sienne River south of the village necessitated the occupation of positions, and at 1545 the first battalion round was fired. The high ground was taken just before dark that evening, but a bridge had to be installed over the river, so the battalion did not leave its positions until noon of the following d.iy. At 1225 that day, July 30, the march was resumed southward, by-passing Coutances on the west, through Montmartin-sur-Mer and Hautville-sur-Mer to Brehal. Brehal was reached late in the evening and positions were occupied for the night south of the town.
This day for the first time the men in the battalion saw a happy France, the liberated France of the break-through period who could enjoy her liberation genuinely from whole homes and virtually untouched towns and villages. What a contrast from destroyed upper Normandy with its thou- sands of homeless! Here enthusiastic "Vive L' Amerique"s supplanted sad "Bon Jour"s, waving and girlish laughter replaced wistful half-smiles: cognac and flowers were everywhere. In Mont- martin-sur-Mer, and particularly in Brehal, the festive spirit was in full evidence; the streets were filled with excited waving Frenchmen, American tanks and armored vehicles, and to complete the scene, disheveled, dejected German prisoners.
More traffic difficulties caused by the restrictions of the break-through corridor slowed the advance the following day, but the citadel of Avranches. already in the hands of the 4th Armored Division, was in view when the Battalion stopped for the night. Normandy had been spanned in three short days. But that was just the beginning. General Patton's four-word order sent the divi- sion on a real exploitation race: "Advance and take Brest." The division was now in the Third Army.
Still as part of Combat Command A, the 212th left its Avranches positions at 1500 August 1, moving south through and past Avranches and then westward to cut the Brittany Peninsula in two. Nightfall found the battalion at Antrain after an uneventful day. Combourg, Tinteniac, Becherel and Quedelac sped by swiftly the next day, and the day after came St. Meen-la-grand and Mauron. The battalion itself did not reach Mauron on August 3, but took positions about two miles north of the town when resistance held up the advance of the column.
On the morning of August 4, the mission of Combat Command A was changed. and it was ordered north to assist Combat Command B in the capture of Dinan. By the time it had reached St. Jonen-de-Lisle, a distance of 10 miles, however, orders were received to drop the new mission and pursue again the original march to Brest. Accordingly the column retraced its steps to Mauron, then turned westward, and marched almost without stopping until 0400 the following morning.
After a rest until 1000 the march was resumed again and the battalion finally stopped in positions just south of La Fenillee. The two days had taken it through La Trinite-Porhoet, Pontivy, Guemane-Scorif and Courin, all filled with happy, waving Frenchmen, cognac and flowers; Landeleau with its Maquis warnings of Germans nearby; and Huelgoat, where the stiffest resistance thus far in the drive was met.
August 6 the combat command was held up all day by enemy forces on the high ground northwest of La Feuillee. At 1900, however, with by-passing over dusty side roads the main strategy, the march was resumed and the front door of Brest was the next stop. The battalion rolled all night the 6th, all day the 7th, and it was 0500 August 8 when it occupied positions a mile north of Gonesnon; a road sign at a nearby crossroad told "Nach Brest 10 Kilometers." In just ten days from Lessay the Brittany peninsula was severed end to end. And the battalion had suffered only four casualties:
Corporal Matthew J. Kalafsky, Headquarters Battery, was killed July 31 a mile north of St. Aubin des Preveux when his tank plunged 100 feet off a caved-in road; Cpl. Albert Bretton, Battery A, was seriously injured at Antrain the night of August 2 by a grenade directed at German snipers; and Lt. Harold P. McAnally and his driver Pfc. Joseph C. Brown, both of Headquarters Battery, were seriously injured in the early morning darkness of August 8 south of Plabennec when their peep collided with a six-by-six.
Brest itself was the next problem -- the prize of the dusty race. But the prize was not to be taken by the Sixth Armored Division. Some 40,000 Germans within the fortress so decided. And the division and the battalion saw some dark moments during the next few days. At 1000 August 8 the defenders of Brest opened up in earnest on Combat Command A, dropping mortars, artillery, and antitank shells in large concentrations on its positions. Some 500 rounds fell into the area within a short time, and the 212th suffered five casualties. Pfc. Russell H. Clement, Battery A, was killed instantly; Pfc. William C. Holder, Battery A, received serious wounds which resulted in his death three days later; Pvt. Hillery H. Bell, Battery A, Tec. 5 Russell E. Hergesell and Tec. 5 Lonnie Jones, Jr., Battery B, were all seriously wounded. By noon the battalion had displaced two miles to the north, and the remainder of the day was quiet. Another casualty was suffered, however, when late in the evening the battalion medical officer, Capt. Miles F. Ocasek, collapsed from a heart disorder.
At 0630, August 9, the division attack on Brest was begun. Combat Command A was to advance southeastward almost to the Elorn River and then enter Brest from the east. The battalion had not even left its positions, however, when the attack was called off; the defenses were deemed too strong for one armored division to crack. The wisdom of the decision was borne out grimly by the subsequent campaign to liquidate the city, which took three infantry divisions and a large array of special troops, including twenty non-divisional artillery battalions, twenty-three days of yard by yard fighting.
Instead of attacking as planned, the division was ordered north a few miles to assemble in the vicinity of Plouvien in preparation for a more deliberate advance on the submarine base; the 212th was given an area one mile northwest of Plouvien. But it never reached its area. A reconnaissance party accomplished its mission, but was turned back when the 266th German Infantry Division, retreating to Brest from St. Malo, hit the division rear from the north. Before the day was over the German Division was cut to bits with some very timely assistance by P-51 Mustangs, but the battalion settled for positions southwest of Plouvien. During the afternoon activity, Service Battery vehicles in the Division Trains area came under enemy artillery fire. One man was killed: Pfc. Clarence L. Adams, Service Battery; four were injured: S/Sgt. Albert R. Buttermore and Pfc. Joseph A. Pierce, Battery C, and Pvts. Ilmar J. Kaipio and Cleve Carroll, Service Battery; and 5 vehicles were destroyed. More.damage to battalion supplies was averted by the heroic action of battalion trains personnel. Two days later Lt. Woodrow W. Cobb and Pvt. Lee R. Nunley, Service Battery, and Pvt. John L. Strong, A Battery, were awarded Bronze Star Medals for their heroism.
August 10 was spent in reconnaissance for new positions south again and a little east of Plabennec, and in occupation of those positions after dark. The mission of the battalion was to support the 1st Battalion, 28th Infantry Regiment, who were now attached to the division to assist in the capture of Brest; the infantry was to take the outer defenses of the city, after which the division was to try once more to advance into it. On August 13, however, the mission of the division was changed from that of capturing Brest, for the reason mentioned before, to one of containing the enemy in Brest, Lorient, and Vannes. The battalion was assigned to Reserve Command, and the next day set out for Lorient.
Retracing its steps westward, it arrived late that afternoon at positions a mile north of Pont Scorff, which were to he home for the next two weeks. During the day, Combat Command B had been diverted from its Vannes mission and sent to the Lorient sector to replace Reserve Command, so it was as an element of Combat Command B that the 212th relieved a battalion of the Fourth Armored Division. Its mission was direct support of the 44th Armored Infantry Battalion, which had established a line of defense just south of Pont Scorif to contain the Germans in and around Lorient.
This Lorient sector during the battalion's two-week stay was in military terminology a quiet sector. But it was active enough to cause four casualties. During the first two days, the battalion established four observation posts. In the afternoon of August 18, one of them was subjected to surprise artillery fire and two members of the battalion survey section, which was manning the post, were seriously injured: Pvt. William C. Hodgen, and Pfc. William H. Gritt, both of Headquarters Battery. On August 21st, Captain Paul A. Graham, battery commander of C Battery, was seriously injured by a friendly rifleman as he manned another of the observation posts. The next day Lt. Anton A. Pritchard, then reconnaissance officer of A Battery, was injured in the leg by enemy mortar fire in the vicinity of Kergonnet church, south of Pont Scorff; the policy of having an artillery observer accompany infantry patrols was instituted on August 18, and it was on one of these missions that Lt. Pritchard was injured.
The battalion's pseudo-rest at Pont Scorff was terminated when it was ordered on August 28 to move with Combat Command B to the vicinity of Orleans, there to engage in maintenance operations preparatory to rejoining the "big war" that was now nearing the German border all along the line. The first day took the unit through Vannes and Rochefort to a bivouac just east of Redon. Angers passed the following day and the battalion stopped for the night at Bauge. Here on August 30 the combat command was sidetracked to investigate Free French reports that Germans were coming north across the Loire River at Saumur. The report proved ungrounded, and the next day saw the eastward march resumed to a bivouac five miles west of Orleans. As the column passed Beaugency on the Loire, the battalion commander's half track was hit and disabled by a small calibre anti-tank gun believed to be firing from the south side of the river; no one was injured. The next day, September 1, the last lap of the journey took the battalion through Orleans and Chateauneuf to a bivouac four miles southwest of Lorris, where it remained for almost two weeks in pursuit of an extensive maintenance program designed to fit it for further combat.
The combat command was not completely out of the war, however, even in this assembly area. It had a mission of patrolling the north bank of the Loire River for a sixty mile stretch from Orleans east. One of the motorized patrols effected the official link-up of the Third and Seventh armies when it contacted a reconnaissance party of General Patch's army at Dijon on September 7. On September 9 the combat command, and the battalion with it, were alerted for movement south to offer token resistance to a group of 20,000 Germans who wanted to surrender "honorably." Their Commanding General agreed to outright surrender, but he feared that it might take a show of resistance to bring all his subjects into the fold. They were prevailed upon by other means, however, and the alert was called off the following day and maintenance was resumed.
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