Operation Battle of Nancy

The 'Battle of Nancy' was a 10-day battle between US and German forces on the Western Front in which the US XII Corps of the US 3rd Army defeated the German XLVII Panzerkorps defending the approaches to Nancy in eastern France and the crossings over the Moselle river to the north and south of the city (5/15 September 1944).

The battle resulted in US forces fighting their way across the Moselle river and effecting the liberation of Nancy.

When Lieutenant General George S. Patton’s US 3rd Army began its attempt to take Nancy, it had only recently recovered from the severe fuel shortage which had brought it to a five-day halt on the Meuse river, and during this time the Germans had reinforced their defences in the area. While Major General Walton H. Walker’s US XX Corps in the north was tasked with the capture of Metz, the seizure of Nancy, the other major city in the region, was assigned to Major General Manton S. Eddy’s US XII Corps. When the XII Corps embarked on this task, it was not at full operational strength as Major General Paul W. Baade’s 35th Division was guarding the southern flank of the Allied forces until Lieutenant General Alexander McC. Patch’s US 7th Army, arriving from the south, closed the gap. This left the XII Corps with only Major General John S. Woods’s 4th Armored Division (Combat Commands A, B and R) and Major General Horace L. McBride’s 80th Division (134th, 137th and 320th Infantry).

Facing the Americans was General Heinrich Freiherr von Lüttwitz’s XLVII Panzerkorps of SS-Oberstgruppenführer und Generaloberst der Waffen-SS Josef Dietrich’s (from 10 September General Hasso von Manteuffel’s) 5th Panzerarmee within Generaloberst Johannes Blaskowitz’s Heeresgruppe 'G'. The XLVIII Panzerkorps comprised Generalmajor Hans Hecker’s 3rd Panzergrenadierdivision (8th and 29th Panzergrenadierregimenter), Generalmajor Johannes Bruhn’s 553rd Grenadierdivision (later Volksgrenadierdivision with the 1119th, 1120th and 1121st Grenadierregimenter), the 104th Panzergrenadierregiment detached from the 15th Panzergrenadierdivision, the 3rd Fallschirmjäger-Ersatz- und Ausbildungsregiment that was an airborne infantry replacement and training regiment, and the 92nd Fliegerregiment that was an extemporised regiment of Luftwaffe anti-aircraft units and other ground troops.

As a result of the local terrain’s difficulty and the US lack of intelligence about German strength, it was decided against risking the 4th Armored Division in the initial capture of a bridge, as had been done at Commercy. Instead, the 80th Division was assigned to secure three crossing sites across the Moselle river using the 317th Infantry at Pont à Mousson, the 319th Infantry at Toul and the 318th Infantry in a limited undertaking at Marbache. The 4th Armored Division was then to sweep round from the northern crossing at Pont à Mousson to assault Nancy from the east, while infantry from Toul crossing was to attack from the west.

At Pont à Mousson, the 317th Infantry forewent reconnaissance and preliminary artillery bombardment, hoping instead to exploit tactical surprise. This was soon revealed to have been a poor decision as the German defenders, who were in greater strength and much better prepared than had been assumed, held terrain that allowed them to observe the movement of the US forces in the vicinity. The US infantrymen made two attempts to cross the river, the first in daylight and the second at night, but both were repulsed without difficulty and Eddy called off the assault.

Confronting the 92nd Fliegerregiment around Marbache, the 318th Infantry had a difficult fight through the woods as it tried to seize the high ground commanding the vicinity. After a two-day battle, the regiment managed to dislodge the German defenders and capture the hill, but were quickly driven back by a German counterattack.

At Toul, there seemed to be greater success as a loop of the Moselle river was crossed by the 319th Infantry, but this success was short-lived as the German defenders of the 3rd Fallschirmjäger-Ersatz- und Ausbildungsregiment simply fell back until it reached a 10-mile (16-km) defensive line flanked by two forts from which it was able to stall further US advances.

Although the initial crossing attempts had thus largely failed, by 7 September the situation had started to improve for the Americans. With the 7th Army approaching rapidly from the south and Major General Wade H. Haislip’s XV Corps returning to the 3rd Army to guard the southern flank, the 35th Division was now available to use in the next assault. A new plan demanded that the 80th Division attack in the north and the 35th Division in the south along with the 4th Armored Division’s Combat Command B, while Combat Command A waited in reserve to exploit either flank. This new plan was scheduled for implementation on 11 September.

After the poor results of the earlier and more hasty crossing attempts, greater effort was made for a co-ordinated and assault with better support, and Eddy decided on a concentric advance to encircle the German forces around Nancy. Located about 4 miles (6.4 km) to the south of Pont à Mousson, Dieulouard was chosen as the new crossing site for the northern thrust of the encircling manoeuvre. In the new plan the 317th Infantry was to cross first and secure a foothold, then the 318th Infantry was to follow and capture the high ground centred on Mousson hill to the north. A heavy bridge would then be laid and Combat Command A would then be able to strike and capture Château Salins, an important regional railway centre. Because it was still engaged in combat at Toul, the 319th Infantry could not be used in this assault.

Given the formidable nature of the terrain held by the Germans, extra support was summoned. On 10 September, Major General Samuel E. Anderson’s IX Bomber Command destroyed a bridge at Custines to prevent the movement of German reinforcements from Nancy, and during the evening of the following day the bombers struck at Mousson hill. In order to divert German attentions with a feint, artillery and air attacks were directed primarily at Pont à Mousson.

The infantry crossings took place on 12 September and met only weak resistance. So fast was the advance that elements of Combat Command A were able to cross on the very same day. The reason for this easy success was the Americans had crossed in a location near the point at which two German formations (the 3rd Panzergrenadierdivision and the 553rd Volksgrenadierdivision) met and were held only thinly. Most of the German reserves in the area had already been sent north to engage the XX Corps.

The German counter-assault to destroy the bridgehead began about 01.00 on 13 September, and was initially successful as troops of the 29th Panzergrenadierregiment forced a retreat by the US infantry and pushed them almost back to the bridge itself. The a US battalion commander assembled enough troops and medium tanks of the attached 702nd Tank Battalion to stop the Germans at le Pont de Mons. Combat Command A sent a reconnaissance troop of armoured cars and Jeeps into the bridgehead at 06.15, and this unit pushed to the outskirts of Ste Geneviève but was brought to halt by German self-propelled guns. As daylight began, the Germans started to retreat to the north and east, pursued by units of the 80th Division and tanks of Combat Command A. The latter’s 37th Tank Battalion, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Creighton Abrams, pushed across the bridgehead and drove rapidly to the south-east, driving aide German roadblocks and taking prisoners. By that evening, the bridgehead was considered secure, allowing the rest of Combat Command A to cross and move on Château Salins.

The following day saw further counterattacks against the bridgehead by German forces emerging from mist-shrouded hills, but they were again repelled by the 80th Division, aided by reinforcements sent back by Combat Command A.

On 10 September, as the 35th Division moved into position to launch its part of the assault, a bridge, rigged with demolition charges but otherwise intact, was located at Flavigny, and the 2/134th Infantry was given permission to assault the bridge at dusk. The battalion succeeded in capturing the bridge and establishing a bridgehead, but reinforcements failed to arrive. The Americans defeated two German infantry counterattacks, but the bridge was subsequently destroyed by German artillery at a time early in the morning of the next day. The US troops were forced back across the river by a third German counterattack supported by tanks, and suffered heavy losses. This prevented the regiment from being further involved in the attempt to secure a crossing site and, on the next day, it was instead assigned to guard the left flank at Pont St Vincent. Here the regiment garrisoned an 1880s-era French fort which was subject to a small German assault that was eventually broken up by artillery.

Combat Command B managed to cross the river at Bainville aux Miroirs and near Bayon. A large bridge was floated across the river at Bayon that night, and the Germans attempted to destroy this but were annihilated instead after being encircled.

The 137th Infantry also managed to secure a foothold at Crévéchamps after a feint 5 miles (8 km) to the north and a 30-minute artillery bombardment. The infantrymen quickly found themselves pinned down after crossing, but were able to fight themselves out after German forces were depleted following the failed counterattack against the Bayon bridgehead.

The drive of Abrams’s 37th Tank Battalion on 13 September reached Fresnes en Saulnois, a village located 3 miles (4.8 km) to the west of Château Salins. On the next day, orders were changed and Combat Command A was ordered instead to take the high ground at Arracourt, cutting off German escape routes from Nancy. On arrival in the area, Combat Command A encountered and destroyed forces of the 15th Panzergrenadierdivision while itself suffering only light casualties, then proceeded to establish a defensive position, oriented towards the east and from which it was able to harass German forces on the main road to Nancy and send advance units to meet patrols of Combat Command around the Marne-Rhin Canal. The raiding party was very successful: Combat Command CCA took more than 400 prisoners, destroyed more than 160 vehicles, and destroyed 10 88-mm (3.465-in) guns. The following day brought word to Combat Command A of further German counterattacks at Dieulouard, at which point it released a reinforcing infantry battalion as well as a tank company to help in the stabilisation of the situation.

After Combat Command B had crossed the Moselle river in the south, the German defenders, finding poor natural defence in the terrain, retreated to the Forêt de Vitrimont across the Meurthe river. The Germans had little time to prepare their defences, and were soon driven off after Combat Command B had crossed the Meurthe river on 14 September, most of the Germans falling back to Lunéville. The meeting with units of Combat Command A at the Marne-Rhein Canal that night completed the encirclement of Nancy.

The concentric assault around Nancy hastened the German withdrawal from the city which had already been authorised on 13 September by Blaskowitz, the army group commander. The 320th Infantry and 137th Infantry pushed out of the Bayon bridgehead and made an oblique advance to the Meurthe river, which they had crossed by the evening of 14 September. By 16 September, the 320th Infantry had crossed the Marne-Rhine Canal while the 137th Infantry had pushed up to it in the vicinity of St Nicolas de Port. At this point, resistance by the 553rd Volksgrenadierdivision stiffened once more, and both regiments found themselves under heavy fire.

On 14 September, the 319th Infantry was prepared to advance on Nancy proper. Intelligence provided by the Forces Françaises de l’Intérieur informed the US troops that the Germans had evacuated the Forêt de Haye, and on 15 September, the 3/319th Infantry entered Nancy on the Toul road and pushed through to the eastern outskirts of the city with no opposition.

The capture of Nancy provided the Allies an important communications centre in France, and later served as the garrison city of the 3rd Army headquarters. The German defenders of Nancy, however, largely escaped the encirclement of the city and were available for further operations during the Lorraine campaign. The XII Corps' successful assault across the Moselle river around Nancy also prompted the subsequent German counterattack at Arracourt by the 5th Panzerarmee.