US 4th Division takes Hill 553 from the SS

 US Army M4 Sherman tanks somewhere in Europe, circa 1944-1945
US Army M4 Sherman tanks somewhere in Europe, circa 1944-1945

The US Army were now pushing into Germany, as the Allies moved up to the Rhine, which would be the final obstacle before they could move into the heart of the Reich. Despite being exhausted by the failure of the Ardennes offensive, many elements of both the Wehrmacht and the SS continued the fight as vigorously as ever.

George Wilson was an officer with Company F, the 22nd Infantry Regiment, US 4th Infantry Division. They had fought their way across Europe since D-Day but the demands of battle were relentless. They had made a night attack on SS positions on Hill 553, only to be ousted by an immediate SS counter attack. The orders came straight back – an immediate daylight attack had to be launched in order that other units would not be outflanked.

They were assigned some tanks and tank destroyers but it was discovered that the ground was too soft for them to to accompany the infantry. Instead they quickly improvised the tactics to allow the armour to provide the necessary fire support. A ‘creeping barrage’, in which the artillery fire slowly moved ahead of the advancing infantry – keeping the opposing defenders heads down until the last minute, always included the risk that some shells would fall short. This was an even more intimidating variation on the same tactic:

We brought our men up against the high bank of the road out of sight of the enemy and lined up the tanks and TDs along the flat stretches, giving them specific target areas in the patches of woods. They would be firing directly over the heads of our advancing men, and they‘d usehigh-explosive shells to keep the Germans under cover while peppering the area with their 30-caliber and 50—cali- ber machine guns. The artillery F0 was also with us, and he had the same targets.

Captain Newcomb then had the men spread out widely, and he personally led them out onto the open hill slope as I directed the tanks and TDs to commence firing.

The only problem in the beginning was the stunning shock waves from the 75mm and 90mm rifles of the armor as the men were still close in. Many of the men had to sling their rifles so they could get both hands up over their ears. The rolling thunder of the big guns made it impossible to tell whether the enemy was firing back; I could not see any evidence of incoming artillery.

With Captain Newcomb in the center and the platoon leaders and their platoons spread out to his left and right and behind him, the attack moved in orderly fashion with everyone walking very fast.

I was coordinating the whole show. The crucial decision, for which I was already tensing though» I had a few minutes yet, was when to lift the straight-line, overhead fire of the tanks and TDs. Artillery was also laying down an intense barrage on the hilltop, but its shells arced in with plenty of clearance of the ground troops and could be lifted later.

The tough decision was when to lift the 75s and 90s. If I stopped the firing too soon, the Germans would rush out of their bunkers and blast our men when they were exposed on the open slope. If I waited too long, I might wipe out my men from the rear.

I was sweating, but at least I could clearly see the men and the shell bursts of our 75s and 90s. I watched closely through my binoculars as the advance continued, and I knew the men were scared to death hearing their own shells whip a few feet over their heads while waiting for the enemy to open up.

All I could do was watch and worry. It was the first time I’d directed that kind of fire, and I could only hope this was not the first time the armor had done it. I also knew that short rounds cropped up occasionally, and I gave a fleeting worried thought to the workers back in the States who had packed the shell cases. Now and then I put down my field glasses and checked the men directly because I didn’t want the magnification to make me think they were closer to the top than they actually were.

When I finally gave the command to fire, the barrage was extremely intense and accurate, giving us exactly what we wanted. The Krauts could not come out in that awful blasting; they must have been terrified, strained to the limit of their nerves. Our men continued to walk rapidly up the slope, and I knew they were not getting any return fire because none of them hit the ground.

My moment was almost at hand, and I watched closely through my field glasses. When they seemed to be only a hundred yards from the edge of the woods I couldn’t hold out any longer, and I signaled the tanks and TDs to cease firing. The artillery F0 then raised his range slightly to clear our men as they reached the edge of the woods. As they got near the bunkers the infantry was firing from the hip.

Most of the Germans were so shaken that they stayed in their shelters. They offered almost no resist- ance as our men moved in and captured them. Their SS commander tried to get them to fight but was unsuccessful. I made my way quickly up the hill, and when I arrived a few minutes later everything was completely in our hands. and our boys were jubilant.

German prisoners were being led out, along with an arrogant SS officer in full dress uniform and long coat. He was mad as hell, and I only wished I could understand his German sputtering.

See George Wilson: If You Survive: From Normandy to the Battle of the Bulge to the End of World War II, One American Officer’s Riveting True Story

Furious Fourth has more on the 4th Division.

The M36 Tank Destroyer had been brought in service in September 1944, bringing the necessary fire power to deal with the German Panthers and Tigers.
The M36 Tank Destroyer had been brought into service in September 1944, bringing the necessary fire power to deal with the German Panthers and Tigers.

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