July, 1944: St. Lô

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The fight flared with noise and smoke at intervals all afternoon. I returned to the command post at dark just as a tank, sent to support our efforts, clanked up and its commander asked, in a weary Ivy League accent, in which direction he should traverse his gun. I advised him that it was more important to cut his motor before he ran over the dark bundles of headquarters men sleeping along the track whom nothing short of the Last Trumpet could rouse. As the battlefield settled into its strange nighttime mutter we all slumbered around the steel war-cart.

The next day the battalion clawed again at Villiers Fossard and lost another officer and thirty-five men, including two first sergeants. Clearly this place was not going to fall to a lone infantry battalion; a combined infantry, armor, and air attack was later required to crack it.

Early on the eighteenth the regimental commander arrived with word that we were to shift, that day, to the left flank of the division’s sector in a general realignment for the push on St. Lô    . Our new position lay a little over a mile south of the village of Couvains and was astride an unpaved north-south road that, at its firmly held German end, intersected the main Bayeux-St. Lô     artery, one of the principal stretches of macadam for which the battle was fought. Our march to it began that humid evening, and it was in the cold damp of early morning that the companies were deployed along the new line.

There was much starting and stopping. At one halt I sat down on what I thought was a boulder, but I found it soft and yielding, the flank of a dead hog or calf. Weary, I walked on without investigating. Toward the end I became so vocal about the operation that the battalion commander suggested that I do my job and complain less, and we would all benefit. I was immediately ashamed, and am now, at adding to burdens heavier than my own.

This commander is prominent among the shadowy figures I write about. He was one of the two professional soldiers in the battalion. Usually he was relaxed and easy to serve, though minor irritations could trigger an explosion. That the battalion held together through D-day and afterward was due to his courage and energy. He was wounded after St. Lô    ; I fell heir to command and followed his pattern to the best of my ability. He returned to command the regiment, and after the war he was one of the organizers of Special Forces.

Finally that night the rifle companies got into position, and the command post settled down along the road. An hour or so later we were up shivering in a soggy dawn to take stock of the place and the prospects for further survival. The date was June 19, and here we were to stay until July 11, either on line or in reserve, while XIX Corps gathered for the battle.

Any position that the German allows you to occupy without a fight is unlikely to be a bargain. This one was no exception. The lifting ground mist showed us deployed along an east-west elevation that was dominated by a parallel ridgeline to the south at about fifteen hundred yards’ distance. This higher ridge was called Martinville after the farm hamlet on its crest; its western end sloped off into the outskirts of St. Lô    . The enemy held Martinville Ridge and a line well forward of it up against our own positions. To take St. Lô    , Martinville Ridge had to be taken first.

During the three weeks we stayed there I had time to note that the two ridges corresponded in relative elevation and separation to Seminary and Cemetery ridges at Gettysburg at the point of the grand assault in the center. This was not a comforting comparison for a Virginia regiment, so I didn’t mention it. Martinville Ridge also culminated in a hill on its German-held right, similar to Gulp’s Hill, where the Stonewall Brigade had fought; it was called “192” after its meter elevation. To strain the comparison still further, St. Lô     had its Roundtop, Hill 122 on the left flank of the German defenses. South of Martinville Ridge was another elevation, along which ran the Bayeux-St. Lô     road; south of that was still another parallel ridge.

Hill 192, looming to our left front, was in the area of the V Corps’ 2nd Infantry Division, which took it on the first day of the July 11 attack. I visited its crest after the battle and was amazed that with field glasses I could look directly into some of the fieldworks we had occupied. Why the Germans didn’t use this advantage to swat us like flies on a table is a mystery.

Our first day was spent in realigning the positions that had been taken in the darkness and weariness of the night before. The command post was dug into the side of a deep depression in a field alongside the road. Covered with a camouflage net, this served very well, though the first hard rain showed that its original purpose was as a sump to drain the field.