Operation Thunderbolt

'Thunderbolt' was a US offensive by Lieutenant General George S. Patton’s 3rd Army round Metz in eastern France (8 November/13 December 1944).

Lieutenant General Omar N. Bradley’s US 12th Army Group had been severely limited in operational terms during October and November as a result of Allied logistical limitations, resulting in the continued shortage of fuel, ammunition and supplies, of which the majority had been allocated to General Sir Bernard Montgomery’s Allied 21st Army Group for its drive toward Antwerp. On the express instructions of General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander Europe, the 3rd Army had been affected by this shortage to a greater extent than the other components of the 12th Army Group, namely Lieutenant General Courtney H. Hodges’s US1st Army and Lieutenant General William H. Simpson’s US 9th Army to the north of the 3rd Army. As instructed by Eisenhower, Bradley had given the greatest priory for supplies within his army group to the 1st Army, which was facing the 'Westwall' and the German army’s strongest defensive positions. This was a result of the fact that Adolf Hitler, Generalfeldmarschall Gerd von Rundstedt, the Oberbefehlshaber 'West', and Generalfeldmarschall Walter Model, commanding Heeresgruppe 'B', were all in agreement about the essential nature of blocking the Allies' main axis toward Köln and the Ruhr industrial region regardless of the cost. During October, therefore, the battle for the 'Westwall' became a war of dreadful and almost stationary attrition reminiscent of the Western Front in World War I.

Meanwhile, the 3rd Army had been reduced to two corps on 29 September through the removal of Major General Wade H. Haislip’s XV Corps to strengthen Lieutenant General Alexander McC. Patch’s US 7th Army of Lieutenant General Jacob L. Devers’s new US/French 6th Army Group at the southern end of the Western Front. Even so, Patton felt that with his two remaining formations, which were Major General Manton S. Eddy’s XII Corps and Major General Walton H. Walker’s XX Corps, he could still advance. At this time the US 3rd Army was in effect marking time in the area to the west of the fortress city of Metz in eastern France.

On the right, the XII Corps advanced from the area of Grand Couronne to the Seille river above and below Nomeny, and on the left the XX Corps had reached the Moselle river between Metz and Thionville, but in the centre its repeated attempts to take the Kronprinz fort, commanding the road linking Metz and Nancy at Ars sur Moselle, failed in spite of the US use of napalm and flamethrowers. Detachments of Major General Stafford Le R. Irwin’s 5th Division which had found their way into the fort’s galleries were finally thrown back with heavy losses.

While Bradley’s offensive in the north toward Köln had been brought to a standstill, to the south of the Ardennes Patton was preparing to force the 'Westwall' in the region of Saarlouis, and had already chosen 19 December as the date on which the undertaking was to start.

Before this, the transfer to the north of General Hasso-Eccard Freiherr von Manteuffel’s 5th Panzerarmee in preparation for 'Wacht am Rhein' had left the defence of Lorraine to just General Otto von Knobelsdorff’s 1st Army. Despite of the addition of General Werner Freiherr von und zu Gilsa’s (from 1 December General Gustav Höhne’s) LXXXIX Corps, the 1st Army had a mere nine divisions (each averaging fewer than 10,000 men) spread across a 125-mile (200-km) front. Facing it, the 3rd Army had once more been reinforced to three corps (totalling six infantry and three armoured divisions) and numbered 250,000 men. Furthermore, Patton had the advantage of surprise because on 8 November the rain was so heavy that any important action seemed unlikely.

During the evening of 8 November the XII Corps (Major General Stanley E. Reinhart’s but later Major General Robert W. Grow’s US 26th Division, Major General Paul W. Baade’s 35th Division, Major General Horace L. McBride’s 80th Division, Major General Hugh J. Gaffey’s 4th Armored Division and Grow’s 6th Armored Division) brushed aside the three feeble divisions which were all that the LXXXIX Corps and SS-Gruppenführer und Generalleutnant der Waffen-SS Max Simon’s XIII SS Corps could place opposite it, and captured Moyenvic and Nomeny. Eddy rapidly exploited this success: to the right along the line from Chateau Salins to Rohrbach via Morhange (4th Armored Division and 35th Division), and to the left along the line from Han sur Nied to St Avold via Faulquemont (6th Armoured Division and 80th Division) despite counterattacks by SS-Brigadeführer und Generalmajor der Waffen-SS Werner Ostendorf’s (from 15 November SS-Standartenführer Hans Linger’s) 17th SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Götz von Berlichingen', then by Generalleutnant Edgar Feuchtinger’s 21st Panzerdivision.

Within the XX Corps, the 5th Division set about outflanking Metz to the south and east of the fortress. Major General Harry L. Twaddle’s 95th Division crossed the Moselle river above Thionville during the night of November 8/9, then wheeled to the south to meet the 5th Division on November 19 on the road linking Metz and Saarlouis. Meanwhile Major General James A. Van Fleet’s 90th Division, which had forced a crossing of the Moselle river below Thionville and was followed by Major General William H. Morris’s 10th Armored Division, reached the Franco-German frontier on 20 November 20. The mopping up of Metz was entrusted to Major General John Millikin’s III Corps. The fortress had only 30 guns, and Generalleutnant Vollrath Lübbe’s (from 14 November Generalmajor Heinrich Kittel’s) 462nd Volksgrenadierdivision which garrisoned the city numbered barely 7,000 men.

On 25 November the 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. The Jeanne d’Arc fort, which covered the district round Gravelotte, was the last to capitulate on 13 December.