July, 1944: St. Lô

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The 2nd Battalion went nowhere at all on this third day, and it was evident that its bolt had been shot; it could only stand and bleed. Familiar enough by then with the results of men discharging projectiles at one another at close range, I was still aghast at the rate at which the corpse carts and stretcher jeeps were trundling away the Stonewall Brigade. The 2nd Battalion had started the attack at 75 per cent of its full complement of about nine hundred officers and men. By the end of that first day we were well below half strength, and by the end of the third day less than one third of the battalion remained. As always, over 90 per cent of these losses were riflemen. Instead of three rifle companies, we barely mustered the equivalent of one; heavy-machine-gunners suffered to a like degree.

Again the German losses were heavier. Their 3rd Parachute Division, which fought so nearly to the death, lost 4,064 men in three days. Their 352nd Infantry Division, perhaps not so do-or-die, recorded 984 casualties in two days.

On the third evening, July 13, the 2nd Battalion went back for rest and refit near St. André-de l'Epine. The kitchens sent up hot rations, and replacements arrived to bring us back to just over 50 per cent strength. However, some of the replacements were patched-up wounded from D-day, and while perhaps restored physically, they were not emotionally up to rejoining the battle.

The divisional commander visited the bivouac area that evening and spoke to representatives from each company in his staccato fashion about how well we had done. Faces lit up a bit, but I don’t know if it was because of the praise or because the general repeated that after taking St. Lô     the division would get a real rest. We had been depending on this for some time, but it was good to hear it from this man.

Somewhat restored, the battalion trudged back up to its old position on the ridge on July 15. That afternoon word came down that we and the 1st Battalion, on our left, were to try before dark to break through. The way was to be prepared by thirteen battalions of artillery and a fighter-bomber strike, nearly three times the firepower of the first day of the assault. As with any prolonged battle, St. Lô     proved a magnet attracting more and more metal from both sides.

Whether it was the tremendous weight of metal crashing down upon a narrow front or German command confusion, I do not know, but the attack broke through, and the companies took off in full career with an élan to which even Old Stonewall would have had to raise his cap. A squad or so of the reserve rifle company, the command post, and heavy mortars were en route to follow when word came down to halt. The effect was that of throwing a hard-running machine abruptly into reverse; we of the rear end skidded to a stop, while the front end broke loose and kept going right down to the crossroads hamlet of La Madeleine, less than a mile from St. Lô    . The battalion commander took off on the run to catch them. Later we learned that the halt order stemmed from “their” not knowing or else being unable to credit our success.

Uncertainty took over while command and staff wheels ground out the decision not to withdraw from La Madeleine but for the rest of the Stonewall Brigade to fight on down and join them. In the meantime German command wheels must also have been grinding, for the gap was rapidly closed and the bulk of the 2nd Battalion was cut off.

Over the next two days the advance, won at so little cost, became progressively more ominous. The Stonewall Brigade was in a poor posture to strike effectively; instead of a clenched fist, it now had a weak finger stuck over a mile deep into hostile territory. Halfway back, well out of supporting range, was the 1st Battalion, which had been halted intact; back on the original position were the 3rd Battalion, which had been badly mauled that morning, and the remnant of the 2nd Battalion.

Compounding their hazard, the companies at La Madeleine had only the ammunition and rations that individuals had carried with them. Communication was by the artillery-liaison officer’s radio, and its batteries faded more with each transmission.

Still impressed, however, by the day’s success, I was confident that we would push on through the next morning. I knew my outfit, and with its commander there I would bet on its being able to survive one night anywhere.

Events didn’t turn out exactly that way. The next day, July 16, instead of attacking toward La Madeleine, the 1st Battalion had to fight for its life. Its right flank company along the ridge road was blasted by a tank at pointblank range and was reduced within minutes to less than platoon size. We were caught in this hurricane of fire and noise that swept back and forth across the narrow front, hour after hour.