35th Infantry Division Memory

For never forget...
Santa Fe
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Northern France Campaign - 25 July 44 - Sept 44

Chapter 5

Mortain - Santa Fe to the Rescue

The story of Mortain is a tribute to the courage and fighting qualities of the American Soldier.

By 5 August, the Vire Campaign was over, and the 35th prepared to go onward in extension of the Allied plans. With the Cotentin Peninsula firmly in his grasp, the Supreme Commander intended to take the Croton Peninsula to the south and reduce it, before swinging a wide arm about the German armies in the west. The Third Army, under the command of Lieutenant General George S. Patton, Jr., was preparing to make this wide sweep. In addition to his famed armored columns, General Patton required strong, aggressive infantry to mop up and consolidate the positions the tanks overran. Accordingly, the 35th was transferred back to Third Army, and assigned to the XX Corps, which also contained the veteran 5th United States Division and the 2nd French Armored Division.

The division began boarding trucks on 5 August to move to an assembly area. Ultimately it was expected to arrive in the vicinity of Rennes which was about midway on the base of the Croton Peninsula.

Proceeding to Pontfaroy, the motor convoy turned southwest, swung around Villedieu, continued southwest to Ponts, within sight of Avranches on the Mont St. Michel Bay. Turning east at Ponts to Brecey, the convoy reached the town of St. Hilaire du Harcouet on the night of 5 - 6 August.

The breakthrough of the American forces at St. Lo had carried Armor penetration deep into France. The 30th Infantry Division driving down from the north had captured Mortain, and the high ground southeast of the city. Avranches, the focal point of communications between the Allied source of supplies at Cherbourg and the beachheads, was seated at the juncture of the bases of the Cotentin and the Brittany peninsulas. The German Commander in the West, General Von Rundstedt, realized that unless he could attack, divide, and smash the Allied forces with one complete and decisive blow, the battle of Normandy would be lost. Mustering all available resources he counter-attacked on the morning of 7 August with strong forces of tank and infantry, the brunt of the blow striking along the Mortain - Avranches axis in the Mortain area. Sweeping aside all opposition the Germans recaptured Mortain, driving the defenders back, isolating the 2nd Battalion, 120th Infantry, 30th Infantry Division, on a hill just east of the city.

In attempting to enlarge this penetration, the enemy next turned his attention to the west and to the recapture of St. Hilaire du Harcouet. Anticipating the enemy threat, the 35th was ordered to assemble in the vicinity of St. Hilaire. For operational control in meeting the impending threat, the division was attached to VII Corps, 1st U. S. Army, for commitment in the Mortain area. Preparatory to the enemy attack on St. Hilaire on the night of 5 - 6 August, the town and the roads leading into it were subjected to a severe night bombing by a large fleet of German planes. During this raid, convoys of the `134th and 137th Infantry Regiments, assembling in their assigned areas, were bombed.

Due to the fluid situation and the enemy's ability to press the attack, Major General Baade ordered Combat Teams 134 and 137 to be prepared to move to the east without delay.

The first problem confronting the Santa Fe was to establish a definite line. This was decided on as the Mortain - Barenton - St. Cyr du Baileu Highway. Since Combat Teams 134 and 137 were on a thirty-minute alert notice, they were able to move quickly. At 2030 on 7 August they moved eastward to secure the highway. This was accomplished in part the first day. But it developed that not only were the Germans strongly entrenched on the high ground north and east of Barenton, firmly dug-in within Mortain and the Mortain Forest, but they were also attempting to drive south and west with a force of approximately 700 men accompanied by tanks through the Mortain Forest in order to cut the St. Hilaire - Louvigne du Desert Highway.

The line having been established except on the Santa Fe's left flank, the next thing to do was to split the enemy into pockets and reduce them. This would have the double effect of driving the enemy from the territory and relieving the besieged battalion of the 30th Division.

The 137th Infantry drove the enemy from Barenton in some sharp fighting and moved into the area between there and le Teilleul.

The regiment's 1st and 2nd Battalions then established posts at St. Georges de Rouelle and St. Mar - de Egrende respectively, with a motorized patrol covering the roads from le Teilleul to St. Cyr thence to the regimental boundary between Mortain and Barenton. These patrols were continued throughout the following day. The 3rd Battalion was attached to the 134th Infantry.

On 11 August, elements of the 4th Infantry Division took over part of the 137th's zone and the 2nd Battalion reverted to Division reserve. The 1st Battalion advanced northeast from Barenton to Bousentier, then westward toward the Mortain Forest in an encircling movement. This advance was continued on the 12th, and early in the morning the ridge of the high ground north of le Gil Bouillion was gained.

Pushed from the north slope of the high ground and faced with possible encirclement, the enemy made a general withdrawal from that sector. Long columns of enemy vehicles were reported leaving Ger and St. Barthelemy. American P-47's pounced upon the fleeing Germans and bombed and strafed them continuously during the afternoon.

Enemy artillery was used to cover this withdrawal. The 137th was due to be relieved by elements of the 2nd Armored Division at 2200 in the vicinity of Rancoudray. However, the 1st Battalion of the 137th and the 3rd Battalion of the 134th, which had been attached, were still engaged in heavy fighting at that hour, and relief was not effected until the morning of 13 August.

Meanwhile the 320th was operating in the immediate area of Mortain. The Combat Team formation ceased at 1800 on 9 August and they continued to operate as a regiment, with attached elements, attacking to the east and pushing back the enemy.

Information was then received that told of the perilous condition of the "Lost Battalion" of the 30th Division. Regardless of the Battalion Commander's courageous retort that the Germans could "Go to Hell with their demand for surrender," the situation was desperate. They had no medical supplies to care for the wounded; their food stocks were depleted; their water was low; their ammunition was fast becoming exhausted. Unless immediate relief reached them, their brave resistance would have to stop. Efforts to drop supplies to them from the air failed. Division artillery tried firing shells filled with medical supplies to them, but the quantities were too small to fill the need.

The attack to the east by the division continued on 10 August against stiff resistance. The 1st Battalion, 320th Infantry with the 737th Tank Battalion attached, drew the assignment to capture Hill 317 and to rescue the "Lost Battalion." This attack began at 1500. The tanks were in column and one company of infantry rode on them. Artillery fired a ten-minute preparation and exactly at the time of the attack, planes appeared and bombed the enemy to screen the tank movement. Smoke fired by the artillery marked the targets. In one hour the tanks had advanced a mile under heavy artillery and anti-tank fire. Before the day was over they had reached the foot of the hill. This drive, coupled with the fierce and determined advance of the 134th, cut in two the pocket of resistance west of the highway.

The attack continued throughout 11 August as the 1st Battalion 320th edged up Hill 137. Riding on tanks of the 737th Tank Battalion, the doughboys pushed their way through a stubbornly resisting enemy. Within 500 yards of the "Lost Battalion," the last of the tanks, not crippled by the heavy German fire, halted to cover the advance of the dismounted doughs. The battalion went the rest of the way on foot driving over enemy positions in hand to hand fighting to rescue the courageous battalion of the 30th. Lieutenant Homer W. Kurtz, Troy, Illinois, and four men from the Intelligence Section of the 3rd Battalion were the first to reach the "Lost Battalion."

The relief was a dramatic one, for in their weakened condition it was doubtful if the survivors could have held out much longer. Anticipating this, the 35th Quartermaster Company was waiting to dash up the hill with supplies. A truck filled with supplies and water convoyed by three tanks (two in front and one behind) was the first to run the enemy gauntlet. Corporal Verlin D. Young of Lexington, Nebraska, and T/5 Hans Gehlsen of Gross, Nebraska, were selected.

Driving at top speed over the rough terrain of fields in order to avoid enemy roadblocks, dodging through the screen of heavy artillery fire that threatened them all the way, the convoy reached the fast-failing troops with the supplies. Then, instead of remaining in the comparative safety of the battalion area, the convoy dashed back to the 35th Division lines carrying 20 men who were seriously wounded.

Even more significant than the rescue of the battalion was the fact that the German attempt to break the lifeline was smashed. Hitler's last chance to balk the invasion was wrecked and the way was open for the complete rout of the German armies in France.

The 1st Battalion, 320th Infantry and the 737th Tank Battalion were honored with Distinguished Unit Citations for this daring venture. Once again the Santa Fe had beaten back the best that the veteran German Army could muster.

The division was prouder than ever after V-E day when members of the German General Staff stated that the War Was Lost when their counter-attack at Mortain - Avranches failed.

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