Two hundred and fifty miles from the Riviera beaches, eight days after the first assault waves had charged ashore, the German Nineteenth Army was pushed into the gunstudded lap of the 36th Division. As the Beachhead News, VI Corps newspaper, reported:
"Under the 36th Division command ... such a great force of artillery was directed on the Germans that more than four thousand vehicles, one 380 mm and five other railroad guns were destroyed, and the main escape gap for the fleeing German army was under constant fire and attack ... the Division moved in and finished off the kill."
One Division served as the blocking force against an entire German army at Montelimar, an army thrashing about to escape the constricting jaws of an immense trap.
"Welcome!" cried the Grenoble newspaper in a frontpage article.
"Yesterday, without warning, we saw them suddenly rising up at the far end of the Cours JeanJaures . . . those wellbuilt boys in khaki, those strong, calm fellows who in 1918 had shared with the Poilus in horizon blue all the sufferings of battle, all the joys of victory."
With increasing fury, as more and more troops were penned in a smaller and smaller area, the Nineteenth Army dashed itself against the thin, tenuous 36th Division line, the only bar across its escape route to the north.
The joining in battle began even while the 36th was still moving its troops towards Montelimar. By 1700 hours on August 23rd, one battalion of the 141st Infantry Regiment had got to within one kilometer of Montelimar before smallscale counterattacks developed along its flanks. By midnight, enemy infiltration threatened its supply lined. The Battalion was forced to withdraw.
Said the Beachhead News: "The Division moved in and finished the kill."
Said the journal: "Enemy activity was reported around the entire perimeter of the Division sector."
To make the kill required eight days of fighting. Simplicity itself was the plan: To block the roads and so trap the Germans, then wipe them out. Complexity itself was the struggle. Surrounding forces were in turn surrounded, attacking forces fired over a greater arc than did the besieged army; the battle was in reality a maelstrom of assault and counter assault.
On the evening of August 25th, the entire 141st Regimental Combat Team, reinforced by elements of the 143rd, attacked and cut Route Seven several miles north of Montelimar, beating back determined enemy infantry and armor. But the enemy was piling more and more power in a toosmall area, and its pentup might was launched directly at the roadblock. At the same time, the enemy lashed out strongly at almost every point along the entire 36th Division line. A preponderance of strength was his, with his masses of armor and his spirit born of desperation. By dint of sheer weight he smashed the roadblock. He lost heavily in men and equipment, but he opened one narrow floodgate. Our artillery damned the gate with the piledup wreckage of fleeing vehicles, but he plunged on towards the second road block, at Allex. The blocking party was a makeshift task force of light tanks, armored cars, selfpropelled guns, and troops from an engineer battalion thrown into the line as supporting infantry. Lt. Col. Charles Wilber, Hollywood, Cal., had been ordered to hold the block as long as possible and, if forced to fall back, to withdraw eastward to Crest and hold the town at all cost, blowing up the bridges as a last resort. Before daylight, there was heavy pressure at this point. North and northwest of Crest were concentration of enemy tanks. Tank concentrations were reported in the vicinity of Banlieu. A tank concentration was reported near Grance. The northernmost road block, thrown up by the 36th Cavalry Reconnaissance Troop, was forced at daybreak by overwhelming German power.
"The Division moved in and finished the kill."
In the rear areas, messengers raced with their reports. Trucks pounded the roads to the beaches for ammunition, returned, pounded back. MP's at the junctions, their eyes redrimmed with fatigue, routed and rerouted the long emergency convoys of ammunition and food, reinforcements, battalions of artillery tearing into position to smash the German attempts at a breakthrough. Surgical teams worked without respite along the rows of battered, bloody wounded. There was no plasma: medicos gave their blood, got up to administer it to the wounded themselves. The 157th Infantry Regiment of the 45th Division came up, was thrown into the line north of Crest.
The 36th Division Salient at Montelimar was a large squarish fist pushing towards Highway Seven several miles north of the city. The knuckles were at Condillac, the finger joints were at Sauzet and the fingers ended at Cleon. The wrist was to the north, at Crest, and the snaking lines of supply and communication ran from the south to Crest. It was a distorted fist, and very uncomfortable. The German Nineteenth Army was to the south, but large forces had made their way across the Durrance River before substantial road blocks could be established, and so the node of supplies at Crest, the hospitals and the dumps, were very close to the Germans in the north, though at quite a safe distance from the main body of Germans thronging Route Seven and the Rhone Valley.
The 36th Division had almost surrounded the Nineteenth Army; and the Germans were on three sides of the Division. The attacked were launching attack and counterattack against their attackers. The attackers were smashing heavily in one small sector and fighting almost desperate defensive battles along the rest of the front. The offensive shifted almost hourly. The initiative did not rest wholly with either the Texans or the Germans.
Along the floor of the Rhone Valley itself, where the flattening land was suited to armored warfare, the Germans had grouped the 11th Panzer Division. To prevent the enemy armor from picking up momentum were only the 636th Tank Destroyer Battalion, and the 753rd and 191st Tank Battalionsmedium and light tanks, plus the M7 mounts of the armored artillery, which at best were only halfadaptable to armored warfare, designed mainly for use as mobile support weapons. As the battle shifted, these units were jammed in the various sectors to breast the waves of enemy medium and heavy tanks.
"We tore all over the front," said Tech. Sgt. Chester Howarton, Fort Worth, Tex. "First we were up at the Allex road block. Then we split up and fought wherever we were needed. And that was all over."
Behind the 11th Panzer Division, reinforced and backed by fresh units, came the entire 198th Infantry Division. As the 198th mounted a fullscale attack to drive the 141st from its positions northeast of Montelimar and force the artillery to withdraw out of range of the highway, the 142nd and 143rd Regimental Combat Teams raced up from the south. On the 24th of August, the 142nd had reached the battleground and occupied defensive positions twentyfive miles long, followed by the balance of the 143rd
From the 25th to the 30th of August the Division was, daily, subjected to severe attacks. The main blows were struck along a spur valley which ran northeast from Montelimar, in an effort to cut the Division supply routes and encircle the defenders. Meanwhile, the whole defensive perimeter was constantly jarred by a series of sharp spoiling attacks designed to prevent the 36th from launching any attacks of its own.
During the eight days of battle, the field artillery battalions fired well over thirtyseven thousand rounds at the desperately confined, retreating army. Supporting fires from attached battalions brought the total number of rounds expended to considerably more than seventyfive thousand. The German losses were prodigious. Key terrain held by the infantry allowed gun positions to be disposed in such a manner that the route of German withdrawal was under fire for sixteen miles. This gauntlet of effective concentrations reduced a welldisciplined army to a straggling, decimated body of soldiery. Long convoys were destroyed, and the entire zone was literally covered with a mass of burned vehicles, trains, equipment, dead men and dead animals. Hostile attacks, launched often simultaneously from three directions, were hammered and repulsed by the same paralyzing barrages. Physical road blocks of exploding ammunition trucks and flaming transport occurred so often that long lines of German vehicles were forced to stop where the artillery and air corps would inflict great damage upon them.
But while the artillery brought the German's rear areas crashing down around his ears, the outnumbered infantry slugged it out with his tanks and foot troops. There is no animal more deadly than man, and a trapped man is the most dangerous of all. The infantry was mere yards away from the wounded, cornered beast that had been an overwhelming juggernaut. The men with the M1's and BAR's and thinhulled bazookas had to stop him.
They stopped him.
Men like Tech. Sgt. Stephen Gregg, platoon sergeant from Bayonne, N.J., who won the Congressional Medal of Honor for guarding a medico who attempted to evacuate seven wounded men from directly in front of German positions. Despite the hail of fire and the grenades which the enemy directed against him, the sergeant covered the medico with a machine gun, firing from the hip. He ran out of ammunition. The Germans ordered him to surrender, but friendly riflemen opened fire on the enemy. Gregg, seizing a machine pistol from a fallen German, managed to escape to his own position, killing one, wounding two, and taking two prisoners, he restored the mortars and reopened fire on the enemy.
Men like Pfc. Joe Stamato of Philadelphia, stopped him. It took more than a flaming field jacketthe result of a burst from a machine pistol at four yards range, a jammed BAR, or a neck wound caused by a concussion grenade, to make Stamato leave his post in a garage door. He wouldn't quit when the enemy attacked and his BAR jammed; he got a rifle and used it. When his field jacket was set on fire by slugs ricocheting from his ammunition belt, he tore it off and kept firing. When an infiltrating German dropped four grenades in the doorway, he didn't quit. He shot the German. He held a sizeable enemy force at bay until more troops came up and he could have his wound dressed.
Men like Sgt. Fenton Brown, Amsterdam, N.Y., stopped him. When Germans attacked his rearguard positions, Sergeant Brown machine gunned and killed over a score of the enemy before they withdrew. Two tried to infiltrate and get at his rear. He picked up a rifle and shot them both.
It was a struggle whose proportions knew no bounds. There were eleven thousand enemy casualties. He lost 21 hundred vehicles; fifteen hundred horses were destroyed and all of the artillery pieces of two divisions. He lost six railroad guns, the potent long range harassing weapons which had been nicknamed "Anzio Annies." Yet, with such terrible destruction, he fought to the last man. Even on the last day of battle, when the initiative had passed conclusively into the hand of the 36th and the Third Division had linked up with it. Col. Paul Adams, C.O. of the 143rd Infantry Regiment reported to headquarters "I'm expecting a hell of a fight," he said. At six o'clock in the morning, the last German counterattack had formed in the vicinity of La Coucourde, but in an hour the drive had been repulsed without any loss of ground. The 142nd moved across to take the high ground east of Livron, its final objective.
When the German resistance in the Montelimar pocket crumbled, the Division turned north towards Lyons, the Boston of France and its third largest city. Reconnaissance elements led the regiments to the east of the city, instructions limiting entrance only to liaison parties to contact the Maqui.
While the Division made its way to establish roadblocks north and northeast of Lyons, bridge reconnaissance parties from the 111th Engineer Battalion entered the city. They were engaged in one skirmish. The Maqui and the MiliceVichy police whom the French despised as much as they hated the Germans were fighting furiously. The bridges had been destroyed except for one. The factories fringing Lyons were burning. It was a murderous war in which neither side would yield an inch. They were out to destroy each other, and the Milice seemed bent on destroying the city as well. One whole section of the city was a battleground, and the streets were covered by sniper fire as Frenchmen fought Frenchmen.
There was fighting in the industrial area of Lyons, but across the river liaison patrols were greeted with great cheering crowds of civilians. The jeeps were surrounded by masses of people who just wanted to shake an American hand or stare curiously at the liberators. Pretty girls threw flowers; kids climbed on the vehicle hoods and sat there, proud; FFI officials could not control their emotions. "What a great day is this for France!" cried one as she kissed an embarrassed lieutenant. It was a spontaneous, a very French welcome.
For two days there were celebrations and all sorts of parties in honor of the Americans, drinking bouts in which the French and their guests vied with one another in paying extravagant compliments. Every private home threw open its doors to the liberators. Soldiers in the city were welcomed in the most generous fashion. The city was theirs for the asking.
The Germans withdrew, and the 36th Division moved out after them. Fires still raged in one or two of the factories, and the Milice were still holding out against extermination, but the Maqui could take care of them. The important mission was the destruction of all the fleeing Germans before they could reach the major defense line across the Moselle River.
The pursuit of the enemy continued as the reconnaissance elements ahead of the vanguard rolled along the roads and pushed back the light delaying parties. The Doubs River was met and crossed as the engineers built a timber trestle bridge across it in under twentyfour hours. There were no bridging materials available when the engineer advance parties came opposite the river, and the enemy rear guards were firing heavily into the area. Working against time, they improvised from the raw materials lying around, to complete a one hundred and twenty foot bridge before the main body of the Division reached the river.
The advance continued, past Louhans, heavily marked by some vandal Teutonic inspiration; past Arbois, home of fine wines and mushrooms, where Louis Pasteur once experimented; past Avenne, to Besancon, then to Vesoul to meet an enemy delaying force of some strength.
Vesoul was the first town in the path of the 36th Division where the Germans elected to make a stand. The enemy was met and beaten down on September 12.
At daybreak, the 141st Infantry Regiment made a frontal attack. The 143rd moved around it's left flank, sending strong blocking parties towards Port-sur-Saone, while one battalion seized the dominating heights overlooking Vesoul from its northern edge.
Two battalions abreast, the 141st attacked the town, and the Third Battalion pressed over a canal, meeting heavy resistance as it broke into the streets to engage the enemy in house-to-house fighting. The Second Battalion, 143rd, in position on the hill, was engaged with machine gun fire and self-propelled fire, and enemy tanks launched a strong counterattack against the positions to the northwest of Vesoul. But, when, after nine hours of stubborn fighting, resistance in the town was overcome and the 141st moved up behind the advance roadblocks, the enemy pressure relaxed. The enemy continued to shell the area to cover his tanks' withdrawal, until the 143rd moved forward to clear out the few detachments which still resisted. Then the Germans fell back.
The regiments continued to drive towards the Moselle River line. German resistance grew stronger, and every town had to be cleared of enemy troops. The Germans threw up roadblocks at strategic points, but these were quickly overcome. The First Battalion of the 142nd Infantry Regiment ran headlong into one on September 14, costing the enemy fifty killed, one hundred prisoners, and eleven vehicles before he could break the engagement.
On the sixteenth of September, armored units attached to the Division entered Lxueilles-Bains, last large, defended town before Remiremont and the Moselle River.