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Tough Time for Tough Hombres
During the bloody fighting in the bocage, a small group of German paratroopers captured 11 officers and more than 200 men of the U.S. Army's 90th Infantry Division.
By Brig. Gen. Raymond E. Bell, Jr., U.S. Army (ret.) for World War II
In the weeks following D-Day, countless bloody battles erupted throughout Normandy as the Germans tenaciously clung to every square mile of the bocage (hedgerow country) and sought to exact maximum casualties for each piece of ground yielded. A seesaw struggle without a clearly defined front, the battle for Normandy became a series of brutal small actions in which attacks were met by counterattacks and real estate changed hands on a daily basis. One such action in July 1944 pitted GIs of the U.S. 90th Infantry Division, known as the "Tough Hombres," against counterattacking Germans of the 6th Fallschirmjäger (Paratroop) Regiment under Major Friedrich August Freiherr von der Heydte. The hard-fought battle would result in the capture of more than 200 U.S. troops and an unusual truce between the Germans and Americans to evacuate wounded soldiers.
The Bavarian-born Major von der Heydte had already fought in France, Crete, Russia, North Africa and Italy before he trained and led the 6th Fallschirmjäger into battle in Normandy. A military aristocrat and member of the Luftwaffe (since German paratroop formations were technically not part of the army), he had supervised the 6th Regiment's re-formation at the beginning of 1944, and by May--when the regiment was deployed to France--its members were well prepared to demonstrate its motto, "Sweat spares blood."
Although they never parachuted into combat, all of the 6th's troopers had earned their jump wings, and all had jumped several times during training. While the commissioned and noncommissioned officers were mostly battle-wise and experienced, the rank and file were generally quite young. Many of them first saw combat against Allied soldiers in Normandy--and for many it was also their last. Between June 6 and 10, 1944, the 6th Fallschirmjäger's 1st Battalion was wiped out in heavy action.
By July 22, elements of the German regiment's 2nd and 3rd battalions were entrenched in defensive positions opposite the 90th Infantry Division on the Cotentin Peninsula. The 90th had landed at Utah Beach right behind the initial assault elements. The division fought hard and lost heavily during the initial battles for Normandy's hedgerow country, as did many other American units. The 90th's enlisted replacements had reached more than 100 percent of the division's authorized strength by July 22. Many of the "veteran combatants" had been replacements themselves a short time before. Infantry officer replacements totaled nearly 150 percent.
On July 18, the 90th began preparations for an assault on the village of St. Germain-sur-Seves as a prelude to Operation Cobra, the planned attack on St. Lô that it was hoped would allow Allied ground forces to break out of hedgerow country. The capture of St. Germain-sur-Seves would put the division in a position to push forward to the key crossroads town of Periers, then advance to the highway linking Periers with the important city of Coutances, located near St. Malô, at the base of the peninsula.
St. Germain-sur-Seves lay atop a low "island" surrounded by terrain that made it relatively inaccessible. On the north it was bounded by the Seves River, and on the other sides it was bordered by swampland and creeks. This rise of earth, which was itself crisscrossed by hedgerows, was roughly two miles long and about half a mile wide. In July 1944 it had become even more isolated than usual from the surrounding territory because of heavy rains that had fallen during the previous month. For the Americans, this problematic piece of real estate would become known as Seves Island.
A night attack on St. Germain-sur-Seves was initially proposed, but the idea was scrapped because of the high numbers of green replacements in the division. Instead, Maj. Gen. Eugene M. Landrum, the 90th's commanding officer, opted for a daylight attack. He selected the 358th Regiment, commanded by Lt. Col. Christian E. Clarke, Jr., to make the assault and arranged for heavy fire support for the offensive. As it happened, fire support was available because the 90th's attack was the only one planned for that time frame in its sector. Landrum also asked for close-air support, and he directed his other infantry units in the area to bolster the attack with fire from their own weapons.
The assault began around 0630 hours on July 22, after a 15-minute artillery barrage intended to soften up the German defenses. The 358th Regiment's 1st and 2nd battalions advanced toward St. Germain-sur-Seves from the north, along a road that crossed the Seves River. The narrow road had connected the surrounding countryside to the western tip of the island via a bridge, but the Germans had destroyed the span before the battle. According to the plan, the two battalions were to create a bridgehead so that engineers could come in and construct a temporary bridge that would aInitially the attack was successful. The artillery support was so massive that it compensated for poor visibility that had precluded an airstrike on the island and kept observation aircraft from directing artillery fire. The 358th's 1st Battalion breached the forward positions of the 3rd Battalion of the 6th Fallschirmjäger, penetrating more than a quarter mile inside the German lines. But since there was little cover available in the swampy terrain, the advancing Americans exposed their flank. In spite of the artillery support, U.S. casualties were heavy. Two officers and seven men were killed, and 10 officers and 180 men were wounded.
At about 1200 on the 22nd, Major von der Heydte gave orders to drive the American troops from the island and throw them back across the river. Since the German commander apparently believed that the Americans who had come across constituted a small reconnaissance force, he sent only Company 16, led by Sergeant Alexander Uhlig, to mount a counterattack. Von der Heydte ordered Uhlig to push the Americans back and re-establish the old main line of resistance along the river, adding that, if possible, he was also to capture a couple of prisoners for questioning.
Uhlig, whose company was down to 32 effective members by that point, briefed his men and sent them off to take up their position for the attack. Although the members of Company 16 were lightly armed and should have been able to move quickly, their progress was slow. Visibility had improved by midday, and American aircraft now controlled the skies, relentlessly attacking the Germans. As Uhlig's men advanced along a sunken road between two hedgerows, they were hit by artillery fire that wounded a noncommissioned officer and three privates. Two other men left the group to escort the wounded to an aid station. Meanwhile, Uhlig and one of his corporals made a visual reconnaissance of the contested terrain and discussed what to do.
To Uhlig's front, 800 yards of what had formerly been the German main defensive line was now held by American troops. To his left was German Company 6, and there was a gap in the line where Company 11, which had retreated, had formerly been positioned. Much to Uhlig's dismay, he saw that he was facing more than 300 Americans. Knowing that it would be suicidal to mount a frontal assault, Uhlig attacked the shallowest part of the U.S. penetration, its right flank. Uhlig's men crept and crawled steadily forward, using mounds of earth and hedges for cover. Along the way, the German sergeant assumed command of some men from another company to reinforce his own understrength unit.
At about 1800, the German paratroopers launched their attack against the 358th's 1st Battalion. During the next three hours the American forces retreated about 350 yards. According to the 358th's intelligence officer, Major William J. Falvey, the 1st Battalion ended up more than a half mile south of the river, having been reduced to half strength by casualties and stragglers. A company of the 2nd Battalion had managed to advance about 150 yards beyond the Seves and thus was located to the rear of the 1st Battalion. The Americans had also been able to bring two platoons of tanks across a temporary bridge.
Although Uhlig's men had pushed the Americans back and inflicted heavy casualties, they had not yet captured the prisoners von der Heydte wanted. By now Uhlig's little group had been reduced to 28 men. Two of the paratroopers who had been slightly wounded chose to remain with the unit rather than be evacuated.
As the fighting drew to a close that evening, the Americans knew that they were in a precarious position. They expected another attack from the same direction. During the night they struggled to evacuate their wounded, many of whom were lying among the reeds and long grass on the north side of the river. In the darkness, some of the inexperienced troops began drifting to the rear.
Major Michael Knouf, the 358th's regimental supply officer, was doing his best to keep supplies and ammunition coming across the river to the troops in the front-line positions. B and C companies were the farthest forward of the 1st Battalion's companies. The 1st and 2nd battalion troops now formed a horseshoe-shaped line some 200 yards deep and 1,000 yards wide on the island's high ground. The morning of the 23rd found Knouf still south of the Seves, trying to push supplies forward.
Meanwhile, on the evening of the 22nd, Uhlig had reassessed the situation to his front. Although the American bridgehead had been reduced, he knew his mission was not yet fully accomplished. The sound of the American troops digging in led him to conclude that another attack against the same flank would not succeed, so he decided to launch an assault on the other flank. Figuring that he would need more than 28 men to overcome the Americans, he went looking for reinforcements. A tank commander from the nearby 2nd SS Panzergrenadier Division told Uhlig he would provide three tanks for the next morning's attack. The 3rd Battalion promised him two MG 42 heavy machine guns and 16 men. Since the men he had been promised were replacements, with only limited battle experience, Uhlig initially planned to use them as a reserve, but he later decided to employ them in a more active role.
Uhlig knew that the MG 42, which featured a very high rate of fire in the neighborhood of 1,300 rounds per minute, was feared and respected by American troops. He reasoned that if he could make good use of the two guns promised him, they could give him an edge in the next day's battle. Uhlig also understood the importance of terrain in planning an assault, and he saw that control of the meadowland near the Seves River was critical to the success of his operation. He wanted to keep reinforcements from reaching the forward elements of the 358th's 1st Battalion as well as block any American attempt at withdrawal, to guarantee that he would have some prisoners to bring back to von der Heydte.
Uhlig positioned the two MG 42s so that they could support both those objectives, placing them in a sunken road northeast of St. Germain-sur-Seves, where the crews could see the Seves River meadow and have unobstructed fields of fire. He ordered the gun teams to dig in and camouflage their positions, since Allied aircraft were constantly overhead, looking for targets. The men used the remaining hours of darkness to establish their battle positions.
To achieve surprise and maximize the guns' effectiveness, as well as protect their crews from the American artillery as much as possible, Uhlig gave strict orders that the machine-gunners should not fire during the initial assault. He believed that he might be able to dislodge the enemy troops from the island without the machine guns and planned to have the MG 42 crews support the action only if the Americans tried to bring in reinforcements or withdraw.
As it happened, the cloud cover on the morning of the 23rd was so low that Allied aircraft were unable to provide effective ground support for any operation. The Americans still had artillery backup available, but effective adjustment was difficult because of the terrain and the proximity of the Germans to the 1st Battalion troops.
South of St. Germain-sur-Seves three German tanks prepared to link up with the attacking paratroopers. Uhlig's men waited for the signal to advance. In his original plan, the sergeant had assigned a combat group of one noncommissioned officer and six men to accompany each tank during the assault, so that the tanks could shield the dismounted men. To Uhlig's consternation, however, the tank commanders rejected that idea because the terrain provided too little protection against any American anti-tank screen. If Uhlig wanted armored support, he had no choice but to put his paratroopers out in front of the panzers and hope that just the presence of his tanks would have an unsettling effect on American morale. In any case, Uhlig believed he had no alternative but to go forward.
Shortly after 0700 on July 23, the German paratroopers--now numbering about 50--left their trenches. Uhlig's first attack, at 0800, hit the 1st Battalion close to the unit's command post. Then the Germans were temporarily stopped by fire from American artillery and tanks.
But the Americans found it difficult to adjust their artillery fire without observer aircraft. The German troops later claimed that most of the rounds went over their heads. As the American forward observers tried to adjust their artillery fire, bringing it back toward American lines, the 358th's soldiers huddled deeper in their foxholes. The German paratroopers began moving forward, however, to avoid being hit from the rear. German supporting fire also caused the GIs to keep their heads down.
Although Uhlig's men began advancing that morning with the three tanks they had been promised, two-thirds of their armored support was soon lost. One tank fell behind because of mechanical problems, while a second tank, which was advancing through a farmyard, rammed a wall and got stuck in the ruins of a caved-in tile roof. After that, it was little help to the paratroopers aside from providing occasional supporting fire.
According to subsequent American battle reports, the Germans made three attacks that morning. The first hit at 0700 and the second at 0800 (the U.S. troops were observing double daylight savings time while the Germans were not, which accounts for some time discrepancies in after-action reports). The second attack was aimed between the 358th's 1st and 2nd battalions. The Americans stopped the second attack as well. A third attack, however, hit the 1st Battalion head-on and broke through to the battalion's command post. Only a few GIs responded to that attack by firing their weapons. Most fell back, panic-stricken, to two fields that bordered the river. Then a German shell landed in a corner of one of the fields, resulting in many casualties.
At that point Major Knouf witnessed the final disintegration of control within the American units on the island. He was about 30 yards away from the command post, trying to make sure that supplies were being forwarded to the front, when he saw the 1st Battalion commander, Lt. Col. Al Seeger, ordering his men to cease fire. Soon a group of American soldiers started toward Uhlig's men with their hands up in the air. Knouf decided not to be a party to the surrender, so he shouted to his men to retreat across the meadow toward the river.
Sergeant Uhlig's two heavy machine-gun crews then commenced firing, per their orders. Their position made it possible for them to wreak havoc on the withdrawing Americans. The German machine-gun fire dashed any hopes the GIs had of getting safely to the other side of the meadow. Some U.S. troops did manage to get through the murderous fire, but many more were killed and wounded, since there was no cover. Knouf himself was hit and seriously wounded.
Uhlig had employed his machine-gunners brilliantly, taking into account their lack of combat experience and assigning them duties they could accomplish from the relative safety of well-concealed positions. The Americans, on the other hand, were at a tremendous disadvantage. The 358th had been taking heavy casualties ever since it had been committed to fighting in the bocage. Just days before the battle at St. Germain-sur-Seves, many brand-new replacements had joined the regiment, and they had not yet been successfully molded into combat teams. It is probably not surprising that, when confronted by a German tank accompanying paratroopers, and with their only escape effectively blocked by fire, many of the green GIs did the only thing they thought was logical when Colonel Seeger ordered them to cease firing and surrender. They simply did as they were told.
Uhlig was amazed at his own success. He figured that his opponents had had no idea how small his attacking force was. But he probably underestimated the cumulative impact that his paratroopers--assisted by armored support, strategically positioned machine guns and misdirected American artillery fire--had had on the understrength and weary American infantrymen. The German sergeant had been able to optimize the impact of his small force because he understood how to combine his limited assets to the best advantage.
But the story of Seves Island does not end when the Americans started putting their hands up. Perhaps the most unusual aspect of the battle--which was, after all, a minor skirmish in the course of the struggle for the bocage--took place after the American surrender that day.
Uhlig divided the GIs into groups of 2025 soldiers and assigned a paratrooper to escort each group to the German regimental command post in St. Germain-sur-Seves, where von der Heydte was waiting for a report. When the sergeant saw that he was rapidly running out of men to serve as escorts, he realized that he had captured more than 200 men. Once the captives had been sent on their way to the rear, he reoccupied the main line of resistance with his machine-gun crews and men from other nearby units and then returned to the village with his remaining paratroopers, reporting to von der Heydte that he had accomplished his mission.
The German major, who had set up his command post in the loft of a large farmhouse, commended the sergeant and introduced him to the 11 American officers he had captured. What happened next might be interpreted as an indication of how the aristocratic von der Heydte believed vanquished enemies should be treated. Everyone present at the command post--including the captive officers--had tea together. It was a moment of civility amid weeks of mindless, bloody fighting. And the German commander's chivalrous gesture toward the Americans was to be echoed in additional actions he took later that same day.
At about 1500, von der Heydte received a report that several Americans were trying to help the wounded men lying in the swampy grasslands between the island and the Seves. Three U.S. Army chaplains attached to the 358th Infantry--Catholic Father Joseph J. Esser, Salvation Army Chaplain Edgar H. Stohler and Disciples of Christ Pastor James M. Hamilton--had decided among themselves to go out into no-man's land to look for wounded troops. Armed only with small white flags with red crosses on them, they defied strafing aircraft and fire from both sides as they made their way out into the marsh grass, searching for soldiers who could still be helped. When the German troops realized what the chaplains were doing, they were so impressed with their bravery that they stopped shooting. The Americans did likewise, except for the artillery well to the rear.
A paratrooper captain moved forward to greet the chaplains, who were by then directing litter-bearers to pick up the wounded men they had located. He and the chaplains conferred with the help of a German-speaking American, and according to one German account, they decided to inform von der Heydte of what was taking place. A German officer later claimed that von der Heydte suggested a truce and an exchange of wounded prisoners.
It was apparently not the first time von der Heydte had acted humanely toward an American unit after a bloody battle. On July 4, the 6th Fallschirmjäger's troops had halted an attack of the U.S. 83rd Infantry Division in the same sector, inflicting very heavy casualties on its 331st Infantry Regiment. The division lost nearly 1,400 men in its ill-fated attack south of Carentan, toward Periers. After that costly assault, von der Heydte had reportedly returned captured American first aid men with a note to Maj. Gen. Robert C. Macon, the division commander, saying that he thought Macon probably needed them. The German commander had also requested that, if the situation were ever reversed, he hoped General Macon would "return the favor." The result on July 4 had been a three-hour armistice in which 16 seriously wounded Americans were evacuated to the aid post in addition to those recovered from the German aid station. At the same time, wounded Fallschirmjäger troops that had been taken to the American aid stations were turned over to German medics.
As the search continued for wounded troops on the 23rd, both sides lent their energy to the recovery effort. An American newsman reported that at one point Chaplain Hamilton was hailed by a German paratrooper who was manning a machine-gun post. The gunner pointed out to Hamilton that he had overlooked a wounded soldier. As he moved toward the overlooked man, Hamilton came upon yet another man, whose left leg had been shot off. It seems likely that one or both men may have been wounded by that same gunner. After the war, former paratroopers Karl Bader and Othmar Karrad told stories of how German aid men and paratroopers had supported the chaplains' and litter-bearers' efforts near the Seves.
After a three-hour truce, the fighting resumed. Never again did the 90th Infantry Division suffer the indignity of surrendering so many men and officers--a total of 265--to the Germans. In fact, the division gave much better than it received, ending the war with many battle honors and a reputation as being among the best American divisions.
The story of the truce was published in the United States, providing a glimmer of hope during the difficult summer of 1944 to Americans who had feared that civility and chivalry on the battlefield were a thing of the past. Outside of the 6th Fallschirmjäger Regiment, however, few Germans heard anything about von der Heydte's agreement to a compassionate truce.
The 90th Division's failure to take Seves Island on July 23 was, after all, a minor setback. At the end of July 27, the Americans had occupied St. Germain-sur-Seves--by then abandoned by the German paratroopers--and moved on to liberate Periers. Major General Eugene Landrum was relieved of command shortly after the Seves debacle and replaced by Brig. Gen. Raymond S. McLain. At that point the 90th's fortunes began to change. McLain, described as an "exceptionally able officer" by Lt. Gen. Omar Bradley, commander of the U.S. First Army, led the 90th as it participated in Operation Cobra. In the end, according to General Bradley, the 90th Infantry Division "became one of the most outstanding in the European Theater."
Sergeant Alexander Uhlig's counterattack was one of the last successful actions fought by the Germans in Normandy. On October 24, 1944, Uhlig was awarded the Knight's Cross for his daring mission at St. Germain-sur-Seves. He was later captured by members of the 90th Infantry's 357th Regiment and spent the rest of the war in a prison camp.
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