US artillery holds German counter-attack at Mortain

A battery of 105mm guns from the US 84th Field Artillery Bn firing from positions on the edge of a Normandy field.

A battery of 105mm guns from the US 84th Field Artillery Bn firing from positions on the edge of a Normandy field.

As the US breakout in Normandy grew stronger, Hitler’s demands for a counter-attack that would contain the Allies grew more strident. A month earlier he had received warnings from von Rundstedt and, later, from Rommel, that the situation was untenable. Now the German forces in France were even more depleted, ground down by the Allied attacks and by their inability to replace losses.

The German divisions ordered into battle for ‘Operation Luttich’ were shadows of their former selves. Yet they were now to fight desperately in an attempt to smash through the US lines at Mortain. For a time it looked like the 2nd SS Panzer Division would break through.

Yet on the high ground outside Mortain, on Hill 314, the 2nd Battalion/120th Infantry Regiment held out. They were surrounded by the 2nd SS Panzer Division but they had radios and with these they were able to call in artillery fire from further away to support them.

Lt. Ralph A. Kerley, Co. “E” Commander on Hill 314 and wrote this account of the battle subsequently:

The dawn was accompanied by a dense fog. So dense in fact, that some of the units on the HILL #314, thought that the enemy was smoking the position. By 0800 hours, the sun had burned through the mist and revealed columns of enemy armor and foot troops streaming from the east and southeast.

Whether the enemy was ignorant of the fact that the HILL #314 was occupied, or had simply chosen to ignore it, is not known and really doesn’t matter. His closed formations made a definite target for our artillery. Corps artillery was called in and the casualties and damage to their vehicles was incredible. The undamaged vehicles quickly dispersed and withdrew. The artillery and cannon observers registered additional concentrations, and now a solid ring of artillery fire could be fired on call.

If the enemy had not known before, that the HILL #314 was occupied, he certainly knew it now. Apparently they realized the importance of controlling the hill.

If they gained the HILL #314, not only would they eliminate our artillery fire, but would have excellent observation for miles on our positions.

At approximately 1000 hours, the enemy dumped everything in the book in the line of artillery and mortar fire on our positions, and K and E Companies received a bombing and a strafing attack. The enemy infantry, with some armor, followed the artillery preparation closely. Our own artillery was called on and was very effective in breaking up the attack. The main attack had been broken, but not before the enemy had made a penetration into E Company’s area. A severe fire fight resulted, and finally the enemy was driven out and the lines reestablished. E Company paid a price for this small victory; casualties were high.

See www.30thinfantry.org/Mortain-Operations.doc for the full account

Robert Weiss was the Forward Observer on Hill 314, as the Germans approached that had to scramble down from the very top of the hill to avoid German fire:

To the left, to the north, a crest of golden grasses meandered toward the area from which we had just fled. An occasional small tree and clumps of bushes grew irregularly across the top. To the right of the crags, the Hill dropped away steeply through trees, the Forét de Mortain. At the back, a broken, scraggly cliff reached down sharply into the valley below.

Trees on the fringe of the Forét de Mortain gave the cliffs cover from across the valley. Kerley had moved his command post from the draw down below and was directing the defense of his company position from the vicinity of these crags. In the hours and days that ensued, Kerley’s “management style” became intensely hands-on and personal. Kerley went wherever the situation demanded. The command post moved with him. The headquarters, however, remained where it had been during the early morning counterattack.

This highest point at the southern end of the Hill was the best all-around observation point, the point from which we could inflict, by calling in artillery fire, the most damage to the enemy. Like Kerley, we moved from time to time as the pressure of enemy movement and attack seemed to dictate, which meant that we were not always at the infantry command post. But that morning and the rest of the day we stayed close by.

Sasser and I, lugging the radio and batterypack, struggled up a little, grassy funnel that shot steeply down from the northern side of the high, gray crags into the valley below. A fringe of tumbled, broken rock lying in jumbled piles gave the funnel its shape. Below the edge of the cliff, on the backside near the top of the crags, we found an ideal spot for the radio, protected and yet close by so that Sasser could hear me shouting messages from higher up where I could see.

As we set up our OP, German infantry advanced in front of us in closed formations across open fields less than a mile away. Supporting tanks moved on roads and through open areas, some coming within a thousand yards on our right flank.

The troops and armor were not hard to spot as they came toward us. We took them under fire immediately using both time and ricochet fire. Deadly against infantry in the open, time fire used a fuse, which if properly set, would detonate before the shell struck the ground, focusing a hail of steel shards on the target below.

Ricochet fire, especially effective against tanks and vehicles, employed a fuse set so that the shell exploded after impact, letting the shell find a target on the bounce if there was not a direct hit and penetration on impact.

Fire mission followed on fire mission.

Crow this is Crow Baker 3.

Fire mission. Enemy vehicles. Tanks.

Fire Mission. Strong enemy force. Men milling about. Large counterattack.

Fire Mission. Tanks moving across road.

Fire Mission. Tanks in draw.

Again and again, and it was barely noon.

Concentration after concentration of shells exploded over and around the enemy. Little puffs of black smoke and swirls of dust dirtied the landscape, mingled together, and slowly drifted away. The advancing infantry took cover, and the tanks went into hiding for a time. Although we continued to shoot at other targets, principally automatic weapons installations, by two o’clock that afternoon the situation seemed well in hand. The pressure lifted from our infantry outposts. I scanned the terrain through my binoculars without spotting a target.

At such close range, spotting and locating targets and adjusting fire accurately was not difficult. Moreover, I soon knew the terrain by heart. Landscape features, buildings, road junctions, orchards and fields became concentration numbers in my mind, targets on which I could call down artillery fire with almost no delay, or reference points from which to adjust artillery fire to other targets. This capability gave an easy rhythm to the shift from one target to another, and reduced response time. With this technique well honed, my binoculars soon became a gun sight. When I shouted “Fire Mission” to Sasser, it was as if I were tensing my trigger finger, beginning the squeeze to detonation that would send a deadly missile to the target.

It was just the beginning of a desperate six days during which the 2nd Battalion would hold out in isolation against repeated German attacks.

See Robert Weiss: Fire Mission!: The Siege at Mortain, Normandy, August 1944

Shattered German armoured column from the battle of Mortain.

Shattered German armoured column from the battle of Mortain.

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Henry Prenger August 18, 2018 at 5:06 am

My father was there. Wounded by shrapnel from a shell fired by a tank the first day. Saw the Germans come up to demand surrender. Have a toast to him every year on the anniversary.

Harold Weil August 9, 2018 at 8:05 am

I only recently learned of the courage and heroism of the fighting American Soldiers at the battle of Mortain and the holding of Hill 314. This episode should be taught in every American school and every August 7th through the 13th should be be recognized as a time of Honor in American History. Most of our WW II Veterans are gone, but should be remembered for their great Heroism; many of these Heroes were humble and did not talk about their service nor the terror they faced in battle. American Patriotism must endure.

Dr. Joe S. Moses, Jr September 25, 2017 at 5:51 am

My father, Joe Smith Moses a medic from Vidalia, GA, along with several others was captured by the Germans and taken prisoner of war early morning August 7, 1944. They were taken from the basement of this house next to the Catholic Church Presbytere in Mortain: https://www.google.com/maps/@48.6484336,-0.9420914,3a,41.5y,102.4h,107.12t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1sbgpPkCfE5ryDmbJBGrP0fA!2e0!7i13312!8i6656

On January 31, 1945 a Russian tank unit overran Stalag IIIC, about 50 miles SE of Berlin, killed all of the German prison guards, and left the prisoners. He walked across Poland and the Ukraine to Odessa where he was repatriated and returned to America weighing less than 100 pounds.

Bill S July 21, 2017 at 4:05 am

My father was there & won the Silver Star for his heroics!

CLYDE Weir June 2, 2017 at 2:47 pm

I was named after Clyde Glumm. He gave his life to help win this battle. I will forever be proud to carry his name. Named Clyde because he was my father,s best friend.

Elizabeth December 13, 2016 at 10:14 pm

It is always with pride when I read about the Battle at Mortain and Hill 314, and then there is the sorrow for the lives left there.

Elizabeth Kerley Castagnoli

Steve October 19, 2016 at 10:44 am

Fantastic site. I have been searching for sites to this battle for years. My wife’s uncle was killed in the battke at Mortain

Kristian Fog April 4, 2016 at 11:21 am

Hello 2today.

Great website! good job.

I am looking to use the text as linked: http://www.30thinfantry.org/Mortain-Operations.doc#sthash.1O0ciNfa.dpuf

But it refers to map that are not included? is this something you can help me with?

Once again, great site!

Jerry barnett March 22, 2016 at 5:08 am

Words can’t convey the amount of courage these men showed those days on hill 314

Stephen August 29, 2014 at 2:39 pm

Link to 30th division doc not quite right.

Been on holiday so a few days behind! Keep up the great work.

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