September - October 1944

Operation Cobra starting on July 25, 1944 broke the German line in Normandy and opened up their rear areas to Allied attack.  Patton's 3rd US Army was tasked with exploiting the the breakthrough, which they did with reckless abandon.  Sending part of the army west to capture the Atlantic ports, the rest of the 3rd Army headed east.  Despite the failure to encircle Germans, the bulk of the German army was destroyed, and Paris was liberated.  The Allied armies then moved triumphantly east through France with the Third Army in the lead.  Progress was quick, but it couldn't last, and on August 31st the 3rd Army was halted.  There simply weren't enough transportation companies to bring supplies to the front.  Although invasion planners had requested 240 transportation companies, SHAEF wanted to cut the number to 100.  Operation Chastity, a plan for a new port at the Morbihan in Brittany with Mulberry equipment, was abandoned as forward progress led the Allied high command to expect new ports to become available closer to the front.  Antwerp was prominent among the hoped for future supply ports, but although the city itself was liberated on September 4th, the waterways leading to the port were not, and the port was only opened up in November.  Meanwhile, Montgomery was successfully lobbying Eisenhower to give him priority on supplies, and he would soon plan an airborne drop, Operation Market-Garden, to capture a bridge over the Rhine at Arnhem.  So while Patton and many others saw opportunity and believed that the war was nearly over, supplies dried up, and the Third Army halted short of the Moselle River.

The German army was retreating toward Germany as quickly as possible, including units from southern France pursued by the US 7th Army which had landed on France's Mediterranean coast.  Although the Germans from the south of France were not cut off, the situation for Germany was bleak.  They had recently lost 900,000 men against the Soviets, 300,000 in Normandy, and 200,000 men were being surrounded by the Allies in port cities.  Seven hundred thousand did remain on the Western Front.  The Germans were also sending new units forward, including a division from Italy to Lorraine.  The bulk of these new units were headed to the Moselle to face Patton, so from September 1st to September 5th, the German force in Lorraine went from three and a half to eight divisions.  

With expedients like the Red Ball Express the supply situation improved somewhat, and Patton still believed that he could regain his previous momentum.  It would not be easy.  Once composed of three corps, the detachment of a corps to Brittany which became the 9th Army had weakened Patton's eastward drive down to two corps, each with three divisions.  Since the 3rd Army was ahead of the other Allied armies, one division from each of Patton's corps was assigned to flank protection.  This left just four divisions to continue the advance over the Moselle - this over a front of 75 miles.  The Germans had eight divisions, well below strength, but they were able to achieve manpower parity along the Moselle.  The Allies were greatly superior in equipment and despite supply problems, mobility too.  Patton ignored intelligence showing that the Germans were consolidating and strengthening along the Moselle, and he thought little of the river in front of him and was instead focused on breaching the West Wall and crossing the Rhine.     

Patton had two corps under his command.  In the north Walton Walker's XX Corps was facing Metz.  To the south Manton Eddy's XII Corps faced Nancy.  In at least one narrative of the campaign, Patton is described as planning to take Nancy from the rear, which is amusing enough, especially in light of the planned penetration from Pont-a-Mousson after the 317th Infantry established a bridgehead there.  Crossings were also planned upstream at Dieulouard by the 318th Infantry and at Toul by the 319th Infantry.  


Today Pont-a-Mousson is known mainly for the manhole covers that are manufactured there, but the town has important military history.  Named after its strategically important bridge, this was where the Prussian army crossed in 1870 on the way to Mars-la-Tour and Gravelotte-St. Privat.  In the First World War, the St Miheil Salient was nearby, and the town square features a prominent monument to the US Ambulance Corps.

Unfortunately the American bridgehead at Pont-a-Mousson was counterattacked and wiped out with the loss of 300 men.  The crossing at Dieulouard south of town was also repulsed.  Only at Toul further south was there some success. 


Fortified with a design from master fortress builder Vauban, Toul is an old garrison town but lacked close-in modern defenses.  The water features like the one shown here are perhaps the most interesting part of the fortress, fed by the Moselle River which the US Army crossed just outside of town.  Advancing further toward Nancy, the Americans would encounter two more forts, both defended by the Germans.


Fort Villey-le-Sec

Built in the 1870s and modernized later as weapons technology improved, Fort Villey-le-Sec is part of the Séré de Rivières system of fortification.  The fort is adjacent to the Moselle which makes a loop west to Toul then turns back east before flowing north.  Another work, Fort de Gondreville is adjacent to the Moselle to the north on the other side of the loop.  In this photo you can see one of the modernizations and above it the sprawl from the city of Toul.  The photo above, as well as the one below, is the northern section of the fort in the map above.  The square portion of the fort is facing west  - the direction of the American advance.

Fort Villey-le-Sec

The fort was defended by a battalion of German parachute troops.  An American attack on September 6th was repulsed.  Another attack the next day was supported by tank destroyers, but the attacked was nevertheless stopped at the ditch.  Only on September 10th did the Germans evacuate the fort.  With several miles of forest between the Americans and Nancy, it was clear that this was not the best approach to Nancy.

With two repulsed crossings and a bridgehead near Toul of limited use, the XII Corps effort was a failure.  Next we will investigate the XX Corps at Metz.

The 5th Infantry Division was advancing through the old 1870 battlefields of Mars-la-Tour and Gravelotte-St. Privat toward Metz, fighting as they went.  In fact monuments from the 1870 still show damage.

The XX Corps commander Walton Walker had only vague ideas about the fortifications of Metz.  The French had passed along information on the forts, but it was never passed down to the lower levels of command.  The men attacking Metz on September 6th and 7th had little idea what was in front of them.

Massacre Ravine - Gravelotte

A prominent feature of the 1870 battlefield, Mance Ravine was also a feature of the 1944 battle.  Advancing through this, the Americans would soon face Fort Jeanne d'Arc.

Near Fort Jeanne d'Arc

The small white crosses in the fields mark the graves of Germans who fell in 1870.  In this 180 degree view, the road is shown on either end.  On the right is road is coming from Verdun and is the route of the advancing Americans.  On the left the road climbs to the ridge top near Fort Jeanne d'Arc then goes into Metz.  These German fortifications stopped the American advance.  Although Patton reported that American troops had reached the square at the Metz Cathedral, the statement was in no way accurate.  Fighting near Metz continued for some time.  Several weeks later Patton's men would assault Fort Driant about four miles south of here.    

Patton's initial attempts to cross the Moselle and drive into Germany had badly failed.  The 3rd Army's air support had instead been used to reduce the Breton port of Brest, leaving little to nothing to support the drive east, but poor reconnaissance and a failure to concentrate had been the greatest contributors to the failure.

On September 8th Patton asked Army Group commander Omar Bradley permission to bring his two flanking divisions forward.  The request was denied.  The same day a German counterattack north of Metz by the 106th Panzer Brigade was smashed.  South of Metz a crossing was made at Dornot, but a German counterattack pushed the Americans back across the river.


On September 10th men of the 5th Infantry Division of Walker's XX Corps crossed a canal then the Moselle here at Arnaville about three miles south of the failed crossing at Dornot.  Fighting continued on the heights beyond, visible on the right of the panorama, but the Americans were unable to push out from the bridgehead.  So although a bridgehead that threatened the encirclement of Metz from the south now existed, there was no breakout.  Patton needed a new plan.

Commander of XII Corps, Manton Eddy, was an infantry officer - methodical and slow.  Before attacking again he waited for the 35th Infantry Division to arrive, so it was only on September 12th that he was ready to attack.  Some commentators believe that Patton would have been justified in relieving him from command.  Patton received word from Bradley that he needed to be across the Moselle in mass by September 14th on go on the defensive, something that the always aggressive army commander would find difficult to deal with.

Eddy planned an attack south of Nancy.  With fewer of the enemy there, perhaps it would be easier.  Although there were several river, stream, and canal crossings, Eddy thought this preferable to crossing the much wider Moselle north of Nancy.  With the crossings secured, the tanks of the 4th Armored Division would be unleashed.  John Wood, commander of the 4th Armored Division, was horrified at the plan.  In his mind it was better to get one large water obstacle, the Moselle north of Nancy, out of the way.  Then there was plenty of great tank country beyond.  The commanders compromised.  There would be two attacks - one north of Nancy and one south of Nancy.  The 4th Armored would be split into its combat commands and committed to both attacks - thus diluting the power of the division.

Bayon Canal Crossing

On September 11, 1944 a canal crossing was effected south of Nancy at Bayon.  Judging from maps, the panorama above was taken within a few hundred yards of the 1944 crossing location.  Because of a lack of rain, the Americans were able to ford the canal and save bridging equipment.  Eventually, however, with the multiple crossings involved, they ran out of bridging material.


Dieulouard Crossing

North of Nancy at Dieulouard, on September 12th, the other of Eddy's assaults was being made - over the canal and the river.  Artillery and air bombardments were designed to deceive the Germans as to the location of the crossing, and in this they succeeded.  Covered by fifty machine guns, infantry crossed the Moselle in assault boats.  Soon the engineers were building a pontoon bridge.

Dieulouard Bridgehead

In this view from across the canal you can see two hills that dominated the bridge area.  On the left Ste-Genevieve Hill, named for the town there.  On the right is Falaise Hill.  The Americans would have to hold both hills to protect the bridgehead, so a 3,000 yard perimeter was set up.

Ste-Genevieve Counterattack

German doctrine dictated a counterattack, and that was exactly what they did.  Aided by darkness, at around 1am on September 13th a German panzer grenadier battalion began the counterattack.  Approaching from the north, a portion of the counterattack force climbed Ste-Genevieve Hill along the axis of the road shown here.  Another section advanced parallel to the river.  Supported by ten assault guns, the Germans made good progress against the Americans  who were unprepared for enemy armored fighting vehicles.  The Germans very nearly reached the bridges and were stopped because Combat Command A of the 4th Armored Division (CCA/4th AD) arrived and restored the situation.  By sun-up the Germans had withdrawn.  Realizing the importance of the situation however, the Germans assembled more troops for another try.  Late on September 13th three battalions were brought north from Nancy along with two from Metz and some remnants of the 106th Panzer Brigade.  To this were added a regiment from the 15th Panzer Grenadier Division in reserve.

Having repulsed the German counterattack, CCA moved inland causing great havoc in the German rear areas.  Moving over ten miles into the German rear, CCA reached the outskirts of Chateau Salins by the end of September 13th.  On September 14th CCA moved south to the area of Arracourt.  Near Luneville they linked up with CCB from the southern of Eddy's two attacks.  The German 553rd Volksgrenadier Division in Nancy was now in danger and began a withdrawal.

From Mousson Hill

On September 14th the Germans began several disjointed attacks on the bridgehead that used fog and the terrain to their advantage.  The attacks were repulsed, and the 317th Infantry was sent forward to capture hills to the east of the bridgehead.  Meanwhile the 1st Bn/319th Infantry was sent north to attack Mousson Hill, which they captured by 2pm.  The Americans dug in and were counterattacked by Germans from the forest to the east.  The hill boasts 360 degree views.  The panorama above is looking south to the Dieulouard bridgehead, and you can see the battlefield from the early morning September 13th two-pronged German counterattack.  One prong had passed over Ste-Genevieve Hill and the other through Loisy, both nearly reaching the bridges.    

Mousson Hill

The hilltop has remains of a medieval castle.  Casualties from the fighting here included General Edmund Searby, an artillery officer.  Late on September 14th the Germans were reinforced and planned a major counterattack for the next day.  The American position on Mousson Hill was included in the attack.  With German capture of Ste-Genevieve and the village of Atton  north of Loisy, Mousson Hill was isolated, but the position held.

The panorama above was taken between Bezaumont and Landremont near the American line.  The September 15th German counterattack reached Landremont on Ste Genevieve Hill but could advance no further.  Hoping to enlarge the bridgehead, the Americans had sent troops forward to Mt Toulon the day before.  They returned on the 15th - into the rear of the Germans - and helped repulse the German attack.

Across the valley the Germans were attacking Falaise Hill from the Bois de la Rumont.

Attacking from Bois de la Rumont, the Germans attacked Falaise Hill and were repulsed.  The German counterattacks had been fierce, and the Americans were fortunate to save the bridgehead.

At the same time, CCA/4th Armored Division was isolated at Arracourt roughly twenty miles forward.  The seriousness of the situation  may have made the corps commander, Eddy, even more conservative than usual - at a time when opportunity was presenting itself.



The Germans evacuated the 553rd Volksgrenadier Division from Nancy.  The city and the American troops alike were saved from a destructive street fight.  Meanwhile CCB/4th Armored Division made a tenuous link up with CCA.

Hitler had been planning a grand counterattack much like the later Ardennes offensive in December - hoping to attack the 3rd Army's flank and thrusting toward Reims, separating the 3rd Army from the 7th Army.  Circumstances had sidetracked the plan, however.  For the offensive tanks fresh off the assembly line had been used to form new panzer brigades - this instead of replacing losses in the old panzer divisions.  One of these new untested and poorly trained panzer brigades had already been smashed north of Metz.  Now the 112th Panzer Brigade was smashed attacking the 2nd Free French Armored Division.  So now the German 5th Panzer Army had just 182 tanks available to attack the vulnerable CCA/4th Armored at Arracourt.  



Patton's plan had been for a major effort starting on September 14th, to form a column of divisions - the 4th Armored, 35th Infantry, and 80th Infantry - and advance on the West Wall then cross the Rhine.  CCB/6th Armored Division and 7th Armored Division would reinforce the attack.  On September 17th the Germans had no reserves and the 15-20 mile gap in their lines.  It was an amazing opportunity.  But despite an order from Patton to advance rapidly on September 16th, Eddy hesitated.  That day CCB/6th Armored arrived, and the 35th Infantry Division crossed the next day - ready to advance.  Eddy, however, was nervous about the Dieulouard bridgehead and gave the Germans three valuable days while he consolidated the bridgehead.  What did the Germans do?  Attack, of course, this time around Arracourt.   

Bad weather starting on September 18th had the effect of  shielding the German attack from view, but it also created confusion among the under-trained German troops.  And although the Germans would be spared from attacks by American dive bombers, the low visibility also negated the German advantage of longer range tank guns.  On September 19th and 20th, the German attacks at Arracourt were repulsed.  

The Germans continued to attack, however, until September 29th, discouraging the grand American attack.  By that point the great opportunity had passed - gone forever.  In keeping with his hands-off, decentralized command philosophy, Patton did not visit Eddy or press him.  Patton started to doubt his plan, then on September 23rd Eisenhower diverted supplies to Montgomery, hoping for better success in the north.  Patton's grand offensive was over, but he had at least stymied the planned German mass offensive.  Patton had failed because he did not concentrate and he did not press Eddy.  Lack of supplies also contributed to the failure.

What was Patton to do now?  A believer in constant action, he would not remain on the defensive.  Although he believed in attacking weakness, he now abandoned this principle and decided to attack German strength - the fortress of Metz.  Not only would he attack the city's defenses, he would attack the strongest of the forts defending the city - Fort Driant.  Before we see Fort Driant, first let's see Feste Wagner which is a good example of the system of forts that the Germans built around Metz following their takeover of the area during the 1870-71 Franco-Prussian War.


The map here shows the layout of Feste Wagner.  Two artillery batteries are at the center of the work.  On the flanks, however, are infantry ouvrages, or works.  Although the forts were old designs, were neglected, and were armed with outdated short barreled artillery, they were designed to be mutually supporting and proved capable of standing up to significant pounding from American artillery and air power.  Feste Wagner was attacked by American troops, but we will visit in order to better understand the forts.     

Artillery Battery - Feste Wagner

The fort combines artillery batteries with infantry defenses.  Shown here is an example of an artillery battery.  The right side of the panorama, and the right side of the photo at right, are both the rear of the structure, which is protected by metal fencing and firing ports in caponiers.    


In front of the artillery batteries, armored observation posts like this one would send target information back to the artillery.  During the fighting in the Metz forts, attacking American troops dropped explosives down ventilation shafts like the one here in the foreground.  Despite this weakness and the age of the forts, they proved formidable.  In addition, American infantry divisions were optimized for mobility, not attacking fixed defenses like these, and there had been no training for such attacks.


These are examples of infantry fighting positions at Feste Wagner.  Although formidable, they were designed before the need for overhead protection was acknowledged.

This is the rear of Infantry Work Verny.


These are examples of 'escargot', infantry fighting positions between the major structures within a fort.  Some include overhead protection.

The Germans also dug trench positions inside the forts.  This is a reconstruction being built.

Fort Driant

Fort Driant was the focus of American attention.  If it fell, the road to Metz would be open.  The 5th Infantry Division was given the task.  On September 27th a frontal attack was repulsed.  Another attack from October 3rd through 5th entered the fort but was unable to capture it.  A final attack from October 7th through 12th also entered the fort but was unable to capture it.  The defenders were motivated officer candidates, and American artillery and air bombardment did little damage to the fort.  The air bombardment even included heavy bombers.

Reminders of the bombardment can still be found in the fort.


The southern end of Fort Driant sits atop a steep slope that was overlooking the Moselle valley.  Trees have since grown on the fort, making the site much different than its wartime appearance.  The terrain in front of the fort slopes to the south also, and the slope near the summit gave some degree of cover to the attacking American troops.  It was here that the Americans focused their attention for the last two of the three attacks.  Penetrating the wire, the Americans continued uphill in the direction in which John is pointing.

Yes, John wears a $12 watch from Wal-Mart and an $11 Ralph Lauren clearance shirt.  Frugality allows foreign travel for John, and it can for you too!

The slope at left is where the American troops were attacking, and it was somewhere along the wall near here that they entered Fort Driant.

This is an over 180 degree view of the southern edge of Fort Driant.  Unseen behind us is the steep slope descending to the Moselle.  The path - straight in reality but curved here by distortion - is the route of the American troops advancing into the fort, from left to right.  Continuing along this route the Americans came upon cuts in the slope to their left and took these routes to the rear of German barracks.

This is another view from along the southern edge of the fort.  In this panorama - on the left half - you can see the slope descending to the river.  The path is on the right half of the panorama, and you can see a traverse projecting out into it from the south facing wall.

This is the rear of Barracks S, which I believe has been damaged in a demolition attempt after the battle.  The structure is now marked with signs warning visitors of the danger of death.  The attacking American troops came from the edge of the fort, visible as the flat area on the left of the panorama, and entered the barracks.  They even entered a tunnel that connected the barracks with a neighboring barracks, but they were repulsed underground.  It was tunnels like these that the Germans used to move around and along with troops stationed in various buildings counterattacked the Americans as they moved into the fort.

The views above show some of the damage from the demolition attempt.  You can also see the firing ports in the caponier.


Nearby are two additional hazards.  Watch where you walk in this place!

The attacking Americans also attacked the rear of this artillery battery but were unable to enter it.  (The guns were later removed from these turrets.)

Despite the failure of heavy bombers and artillery to destroy the fortifications at Brest, Patton believed that they would be successful here.  They were not.  Tanks had supported the attack but were unable to enter the fort.  Shaped charges that the American used were unable to penetrate the fort.  German counterattacks from unexpected locations were costly and confusing to the Americans.  Despite the gallantry of the attackers, the effort was in vain.  The fort held, and Patton's offensive had failed.

Why had Patton attacked Metz contrary to his own principle of attacking weakness?  Perhaps he thought that Metz was too big to bypass.  Critics suggest that with the German army virtually immobile, Patton could have contained Metz with one division and concentrated elsewhere.  The most likely explanation for Patton's decision to attack Metz was his idea that an army should be in constant action.  

Although Patton did not publicly admit that attacking Metz was a mistake, his next big effort in November was the encirclement of Metz.  He had learned his lesson.  He had not learned the value of concentration, however, and the 3rd Army still advanced on a broad front.  Heavy rains hindered mobility and air support, but with a numerical superiority of 250,000 to 86,000 Germans, the November offensive gained ground.



Metz was liberated on November 18th with the city spared major damage.  Treasures like the cathedral, one of the greatest in Europe despite being under visited, survived.  At the beginning of the campaign Patton had prematurely announced that an American unit had reached Metz city square at the cathedral.  Now, over two and a half months later, Metz was free.


The liberators of Metz are commemorated at the 18th century defenses on the west side of the city.  Although the city was taken, it was only in early December that all the German forts surrendered.  Metz, defended by fortifications dating from the medieval to the First World War, had been captured for the first time since Atilla the Hun.  The Third Army continued to the Rhine, but progress was stopped later in December to deal with a new threat to the north in the Ardennes.  The Battle of the Bulge would be Hitler's final gamble to turn the tide.

Although Patton is thought by many to be the best American army commander of the war, his performance in Lorraine was disappointing.  His preconceived ideas about the obsolesce of fortifications along with his failure to absorb the lessons of Brest concerning air power and artillery directly led to failure at Metz.  His broad front advance with its failure to concentrate prevented the decisive exploitation of success.  For example FW von Mellinthin suggested that the Americans should have concentrated their armored divisions into an armored corps.  Patton's defenders suggest that the road network in Lorraine was unable to support a concentrated effort.  Patton's decentralized command philosophy was similar to the superior German model, but old school infantry officers like Eddy found it difficult to adapt to it, and to mobile warfare.  Patton failed to press Eddy, so decisive battle eluded them.  Despite Patton's flaws, if the high command had planned properly for the logistical demands of the very type of mobile warfare that they hoped for, Third Army along with other Allied armies could have maintained pressure rather than halting in late August.  It was this halt that allowed the Germans to regroup and reorganize, and perhaps it prolonged the war by months.


Copyright 2012 by John Hamill

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