Operation Casanova (ii)

This was a US diversionary operation by Major General Harry L. Twaddle’s 95th Division during the offensive of Lieutenant General George S. Patton’s 3rd Army of General Omar N. Bradley’s 12th Army Group against the German forces around Metz in eastern France (8/19 November 1944).

The division had entered the line on 19 October, in the Moselle river bridgehead sector to the south of Metz and patrolled the Seille river near Cheminot, repulsing German attempts to cross the river. On 1 November elements of the division went over to the offensive, reducing a German pocket east of Maizières.

Part of Major General Walton H. Walker’s XX Corps, the division crossed the Moselle river above Thionville during the night of 8/9 November, took Bertrange and then wheeled south to meet Major General Stafford LeR. Irwin’s 5th Division, which had outflanked the fortress city of Metz from the south, on 19 November along the road linking Metz and Saarlouis. The 95th Division then took Metz’s outlying forts and finally the city proper on 22 November.

While the US offensive controlled by Lieutenant General Omar N. Bradley’s 12th Army Group on the northern part of the Western Front was halted, largely as a result of logistical problems, to the south of the Ardennes Lieutenant General George S. Patton’s US 3rd Army was preparing to force the ‘Westwall’ in the area of Saarlouis, and had already chosen 19 December as the date on which his major offensive effort would be launched toward Karlsruhe on the Rhine river. The area was held by General Hermann Balck’s Heeresgruppe ‘G’, which had just lost General Hasso-Eccard von Manteuffel’s 5th Panzerarmee to Generalfeldmarschall Walter Model’s Heeresgruppe ‘B’, which was its northern neighbour, and this left the defence of Lorraine solely to General Otto von Knobelsdorff’s 1st Army. In spite of the addition of General Gustav Höhne’s LXXXIX Corps, this army had a mere nine divisions (each numbering on average fewer than 10,000 men) stretched across a 125-mile (200-km) front.

Opposite it, the 3rd Army had been reinforced to three corps (six infantry and three armoured nine divisions) totalling 250,000 or more combat troops with far greater numbers of armoured vehicles and pieces of artillery than the Germans could muster. Moreover, Patton had the advantage of surprise as, on 8 November, the rain was so heavy that any important action seemed unlikely. Even so, during the evening of 8 November Major General Manton S. Eddy’s notably powerful XII Corps (Brigadier General Harlan N. Hartness’s 26th Division, Major General Paul W. Baade’s 35th Division, Major General Horace L. McBride’s 80th Division, Major General John S. Wood’s 4th Armored Division and Major General Robert W. Grow’s 6th Armoured Division) smashed its way through the defences of the three understrength divisions of the LXXXIX Corps and SS-Obergruppenführer und General der Waffen-SS Hermann Priess’s XIII SS Corps, and captured Moyenvic and Nomeny.

Eddy was quick to exploit this initial success: on the right the 35th Division and 4th Armored Division advanced along the line from Château Salins to Morhange and Rohrbach; on the left the 80th Division and 6th Armored Division pressed forward along the line from Han sur Nied to Faulquemont and St Avold despite counterattacks by SS-Standartenführer Hans Lingner’s 17th SS Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Götz von Berlichingen’ and then Generalmajor Heinrich-Hermann von Hülsen’s 21st Panzerdivision.

Within Major General Walton H. Walker’s XX Corps, Major General Stafford L. Irwin’s 5th Division set about outflanking Metz to the south and east, the 95th Division crossed the Moselle river above Thionville during the night of 8/9 November then turned south to link with the 5th Division during 19 November 19 on the road linking Metz and Saarlouis road. Meanwhile Major General James A. Van Fleet’s 90th Division, which had forced a crossing of the Moselle below Thionville, and had Major General William H. H. Morris’s 10th Armored Division in its wake, reached the Franco-German frontier on 20 November.

The mopping up of Metz was entrusted to Major General John Millikin’s III Corps. The fortress had a mere 30 pieces of artillery, and Generalleutnant Heinrich Kittel’s (from 22 November Oberst Joachim Wagner’s) 462nd Volksgrenadierdivision, which constituted the garrison of Metz, numbered scarcely 7,000 men. On 25 November fighting in the centre of the town ceased and the Americans found Kittel severely wounded in hospital.

The western fortifications fell one after the other, and the Jeanne d’Arc Fort, covering the district round Gravelotte, was the last to capitulate on 13 December.

General Walter Hörnlein’s LXXXII Corps had no better success than General Erich Petersen’s XC Corps and the XIII SS Corps in seeking to stem the seemongly inexorable US advance. Furthermore, the reserves which the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht and Heeresgruppe ‘G’ made available to the 1st Army were too few and too weak to remedy the situation. So it was that Walker’s XX Corps was able to start biting to the defences of the ‘Westwall’.

On 3 December the 95th Division managed to secure by surprise the bridge over the Saar river between Saarlouis and Fraulautern, on the right bank of the river, then to secure the right bank area after reducing 50 pillboxes. On 18 December the 5th Division joined it in this bridgehead, while slightly downstream of it the 90th Division, overcoming two concrete positions, secured a second bridgehead occupying half of Dillingen.

The optimism which Patton felt about the offensive he was preparing for 19 December, with the support of some 3,000 tactical warplanes, appeared to be well founded. Events would prove otherwise, however. Even so, between 7 November and 21 December, at the cost of 4,530 dead, 21,300 wounded and 3,725 missing, the 3rd Army had accounted for 21,300 Germans killed and 37,000 taken prisoner.

At the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, Adolf Hitler reacted to the 1st Army’s defeat by dismissing von Knobelsdorff who, on 4 December, was replaced by General Hans von Obstfelder.

If the victory of the 3rd Army on the Saar was to a certain extent a compensation for the 12th Army Group’s failure on the Roer, Lieutenant General Jacob L. Devers’s Allied 6th Army Group won so convincing a victory in the Saverne gap and to the south of the Vosges that for a time it seemed likely it would reach areas along the left bank of the Rhine river between Lauterbourg and Huningue. Fortunately for the Germans, this did not occur and the opportunity did not recur.

In the 6th Army Group, Lieutenant General Alexander McC. Patch’s US 7th Army had earlier been reinforced Major General Wade H. Haislip’s XV Corps (Major General Ira T. Wyche’s 79th Division and Général de Division Philippe Leclerc de Hautecloque’s French 2nd Division Blindé), and during October it also received US infantry formations (Brigadier General Robert L. Dulaney’s 44th Division, Major General Withers A. Burress’s 100th Division and Major General Charles C. Haffner’s 103rd Division), and following its breakthrough into lower Alsace, Major General Albert C. Smith’s 14th Armored Division.

Général d’Armée Jean Joseph Marie Gabriel de Lattre de Tassigny’s French 1st Army, still responsible for the sector between Mont Blanc and Barcelonnette, kept Général de Division Marcel Maurice Carpentier’s 2nd Division Marocaine and also received Général de Division Henri Jacques Jean François de Vernejoul’s 5th Division Blindé recently arrived from North Africa. At the end of November, Général de Division René de Hesdin’s 4th Division Marocaine de Montagne was relieved on the Franco-Italian border by the new 27th Division d’Infanterie Alpine and transferred to the 1st Army.

When he established his headquarters at Vittel, Devers had seven divisions under his command between Epinal and the Swiss frontier. At the start of the new offensive, his army group numbered 14 divisions, three of them armoured.

Outlining his new mission to him on 19 September, Hitler had informed Balck of the paramount necessity, for political reasons, of holding Alsace and Lorraine at all costs. The 5th Panzerarmee’s movement north to the Roer sector was not offset by the arrival of any reinforcements, however, and the 1st Army therefore had to extend its left flank to block the way to Strasbourg between Château Salins and Raon l’Etape. Meanwhile General Friedrich Wiese’s 19th Army of Oberkommando 'Oberrhein', under the notional command of Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler, had taken up defensive positions on a line linking St Dié, Gérardmer and the western spurs of the Vosges, and ending west of Montbéliard in front of the Belfort gap.

The first plan conceived by de Lattre de Tassigny, whose left flank reached Rupt sur Moselle at the end of September, was to force a way across the Vosges by the Col de la Schlucht. He was compelled to change his mind, however, and accept Guebwiller as the initial objective for his II Corps, which in a later phase of the battle thrust forward vigorously to reach the Rhine at Chalampé, thus pinning the left flank of the 19th Army back on the Swiss frontier. With this aim, he reinforced de Monsabert with three further divisions and the support of two others.

Nevertheless the plan came to nothing, for two reasons. Firstly, while Général de Corps d’Armée Joseph de Goislard de Monsabert’s French II Corps was struggling to reach the crest of the Vosges, Patch’s 7th Army found itself drawn off in the divergent direction of the Saverne gap, and de Lattre de Tassigny was most reluctantly forced to use some of the troops he wanted to throw into attack for purposes of consolidation. Patch and Devers above him had simply acted in conformity with the instructions they received from SHAEF, namely to provide cover for the 12th Army Group’s 3rd Army in its advance to the north-east. Secondly, the very heavy rains of autumn 1944 slowed the infantry, and blinded artillery and aircraft, with the added effect that as winter closed in and the men of the II Corps scaled the long slopes of the Vosges, cases of frostbite grew numerous.