Action on the North Wing
First Army's third major component, the XIX Corps under General Corlett, was out of the running in the race for the West Wall. Immobilized four days by the gasoline shortage and possessing but two divisions, the XIX Corps at the time the first patrols probed the German border still was west of the Meuse River. At the closest point, Germany still was fifteen miles away. The XIX Corps nevertheless had an integral role in the First Army's scheme of attack—to penetrate the West Wall north of Aachen and form the northern arm of a pincers enveloping the city.
In much of the XIX Corps sector, the Meuse River was strengthened by another obstacle, the Albert Canal. The Albert parallels the Meuse from Liège to the vicinity of Maastricht before swinging northwest toward Antwerp. (Map 1) Built before World War II with military utility in mind, the canal is no minor obstacle. In many places it cuts deep through the soft soils of the region. Its banks are great concrete-reinforced precipices, sometimes as high as 160 feet from the water line.
On the XIX Corps left wing, where the 2d Armored Division was approaching the canal and facing almost due north, the region beyond the canal is marshy and creased by numerous small streams. Here dug-in Germans reacted nervously and apparently with some strength against XIX Corps patrols. On the corps right wing the 30th Division faced the dual obstacle of the Albert and the Meuse.
Near the center of the XIX Corps zone lay Maastricht, capital city of the province of Limburg, the Dutch Panhandle. A road hub through which the XIX Corps would have to funnel its supply lines, Maastricht was the logical pivot on which to base a wheeling movement through the Panhandle and thence east to the German border. The city lies on an island about seven miles long and two miles wide, formed by a complex of man-made waterways and by the Meuse (known in the Netherlands as the Maas). General Corlett was to clear the enemy from north of the Albert Canal and east of the Maas (Meuse) up to an operational boundary with the British. This boundary ran northeast from a point between Hasselt and Beeringen and passed about thirteen miles north of Maastricht.
Because the XIX Corps was running several days behind its neighbors on both left and right, General Corlett saw no necessity for assault crossings of the Albert and the Meuse. At Beeringen, northwest of Hasselt, the 30 British Corps already had forged a substantial bridgehead across the Albert, and at Liège the VII Corps had thrown a bridge across the Meuse. Since the Germans appeared ready to de-
fend the obstacles, why not, General Corlett reasoned, utilize the crossings already made?1
As General Corlett suspected, the Germans were planning to defend the Albert Canal. Also as General Corlett suspected, they hadn't much to do the job with.
As the city of Maastricht marked roughly the center of the XIX Corps zone, so it represented a line of demarcation between contingents of two German armies. North of a line marked by the Maastricht "island," Valkenburg, and Stolberg, the defense was the responsibility of the First Parachute Army, a newcomer in the line, most of whose troops opposed the British. The other half of the XIX Corps zone, that area between Maastricht and Liège, was the responsibility of General Brandenberger's Seventh Army, the same headquarters whose troops faced the V and VII Corps.
As the northernmost portion of General Brandenberger's zone, this sector came under General Schack's LXXXI Corps, that headquarters whose major responsibility was the defense of Aachen. An extension of the boundary between the XIX and VII Corps would run just north of Aachen and thereby split General Schack's zone almost in the center. The two divisions on the LXXXI Corps south wing (the 9th and 116th Panzer Divisions) would oppose the VII Corps; the two on the north wing could face the XIX Corps.2
These two divisions comprising General Schack's northern wing were the 49th and 275th Infantry Divisions. The strength and caliber of neither could have afforded the corps commander any genuine confidence.
Smashed in France, the 49th Division under the aegis of its commander, Generalleutnant Siegfried P. Macholz, had tried to reorganize earlier in Hasselt; but only about 1,500 men—mostly service troops—had reached the assembly area. Of the combat forces, hardly anything remained. General Macholz had left but one regimental headquarters—that of the 148th Infantry—and no artillery or antitank guns except one 112-mm. Russian howitzer. General Schack on 7 September had ordered General Macholz to put a regiment of two battalions, created around
the headquarters of the 148th, into the line along a seven-mile front on the east bank of the Meuse running north from an industrial suburb of Liège.
By 10 September the 49th Division had been reinforced by a security regiment composed of older men, staffed by officers of World War I vintage, and equipped with small arms and a few machine guns but no heavy weapons. This unit General Macholz assigned to cover half his division front and was subsequently to redesignate to replace his defunct 149th Infantry Regiment. Reinforcements were to continue to arrive in driblets so that by the time the battle was fully joined, General Macholz in one regiment had a strength of 1,188 officers and men and in the other, 858. Although both regiments gained a reasonable complement of machine guns, they had only two mortars and five 75-mm. antitank guns between them. The division still had no motor transport and no artillery.3
Sharing a common boundary with the 49th Division in the vicinity of Visé, about halfway between Liège and Maastricht, was the 275th Division under Generalleutnant Hans Schmidt. The 275th's northern boundary coincided with that between the First Parachute and the Seventh Armies, which was in turn roughly comparable to the boundary between the U.S. 2d Armored and 30th Divisions. By 10 September, the day when patrols of the XIX Corps reached the Albert Canal and the Meuse in force, General Schmidt had under his command approximately 5,000 men. Like General Macholz and the 49th Division, he had only one regimental headquarters, the 984th Infantry; but in comparison to the 49th, General Schmidt was rich in artillery: he had a battery of four 105-mm. howitzers inherited from an SS division which had returned to Germany.4
The third German division opposing the XIX Corps held positions from Maastricht along the Albert Canal to the vicinity of Hasselt. This was the 176th Infantry Division under the banner of the First Parachute Army.
The presence of the First Parachute Army in the line west of Maastricht was an exemplification of the kind of eleventh-hour improvisation to which the Germans had been forced by several factors: the haphazard nature of their retreat, the lengthening of their defensive front as they fell back on Germany and the Netherlands, and the virtual isolation of an army, the Fifteenth, when the British had captured Antwerp. Pinned against the Channel coast by the British coup de main, the Fifteenth Army had to employ all its resources in escaping across the Schelde estuary and in holding banks of the estuary in order to deny the Allies access to Antwerp from the sea.5 This had left between the Fifteenth Army and the Seventh Army's westernmost position near Maastricht a vacuum of critical proportions, a gap along the Albert Canal of almost sixty miles. The "door to northwestern Germany stood open."6
When news of the fall of Antwerp had reached Berlin, the German headquarters OKW had acted quickly to do something about the great gap. Telephoning Generaloberst Kurt Student, commander of German parachute troops, OKW had ordered him to assume command of the First Parachute Army, a headquarters which previously had controlled units only in training. General Student and his new command, OKW directed, were then to come under the control of Field Marshal Model's Army Group B and defend the north bank of the Albert Canal from Maastricht west to the vicinity of Antwerp.7
Upon inspecting the Albert Canal on 5 September and getting an idea of the troops he would control, General Student could generate no enthusiasm for either. The initial organization of his new army he termed "an improvisation on the grandest scale."8 Although Student's army was to increase rapidly in strength because his superiors considered this sector so important, the size of the army as the XIX Corps reached the Albert Canal left much to be desired. General Student had at this time but one corps headquarters, borrowed from the Fifteenth Army, with three infantry divisions and a parachute division, the latter little more deserving of the honorific "parachute" than was the army as a whole. These four divisions General Student had arrayed in a linear defense along the Albert Canal with the 176th Division occupying the left sector between Maastricht and Hasselt. Because of the northeasterly direction of the XIX Corps attack, the 176th Division would be the only one of Student's divisions to be encountered by General Corlett's forces.
Commanded by Colonel Christian Landau, the 176th Division was one of those replacement training units which the Germans had upgraded hurriedly to meet the crisis of the Allied march upon the homeland. Replacement trainees, convalescents, and semi-invalids in a total strength of approximately 7,000 made up the command. Only a few of these men were unconditionally fit for active fighting. Grouped for combat into three regimental teams, the division had a heterogeneous assortment of units: several infantry battalions formed from replacement training units, two Luftwaffe battalions made up of air force personnel, an "ear battalion," two engineer battalions, and a reconnaissance battalion made up of two bicycle companies.
Whereas Colonel Landau's infantry was about equal to that of the neighboring 275th and 49th Divisions, his artillery was stronger. He had two so-called light battalions with 6 105-mm. howitzers and 1 heavy battalion with 8 infantry cannon, 4 German, 2 Czech, and 2 Russian 150-mm. howitzers. Possessing 1 75-mm. gun, 20 20-mm. guns, and 5 88's, Colonel Landau also was better off than his neighbors in the antiaircraft and antitank departments. Like the other divisions, he had only limited signal equipment, almost no services, and no motor transport.9
When first committed, Colonel Landau had been impelled to put one battalion
forward of his main line on the opposite side of the Albert Canal in order to fulfill an order from Hitler to defend Fort Eben Emael, the most elaborate fort in what had once been a complex Belgian defensive system. Though conforming, General Student had protested the disposition because of numerous factors, not the least of which were that the main entrance to the fort was on the American side and that the firing embrasures were clogged with wrecked Belgian cannon from 1940 when German airborne troops had swooped down on the fort. Not until early on 10 September, a step ahead of the 30th US Division, did Field Marshal Model's concurrence in Student's view permit the battalion of the 176th Division to abandon Eben Emael and retire to the other side of the Albert.10
While the two German armies thus were concocting a defense on their inner wings, the American commander, General Corlett, was directing the maneuvers by which he hoped to turn the German flanks without the necessity of forcing bridgeheads across the Albert and the Meuse. Contacting the 30 British Corps and the VII Corps, he secured permission to utilize their bridges on either of his flanks at Beeringen and at Liège. Though Maj. Gen. Leland S. Hobbs, commander of the 30th Division, wanted to put his entire division across the VII Corps bridge at Liège, General Corlett demurred. Tying up the bridge the length of time required to move an entire division he deemed an undue imposition on the VII Corps. Instead, Corlett ordered the 113th Cavalry Group (Col. William S. Biddle) to cross the Meuse at Liège and drive northward behind the dual obstacle of the canal and the river. As soon as the cavalry had cleared a portion of the east bank within the XIX Corps zone, the 30th Division then could cross unopposed in its own sector. The 2d Armored Division was to execute a similar maneuver with its own reconnaissance battalion at Beeringen.11
Delayed somewhat by mines, demolished bridges, and occasional defended roadblocks, Colonel Biddle's cavalry nevertheless made good progress. By late afternoon of 11 September, the cavalry had pushed north from Liège through all resistance General Macholz' feeble 49th Division could offer and was engaging a part of General Schmidt's 275th Division near Visé, well within the XIX Corps zone. In the meantime, reconnaissance patrols sent out by the 30th Division's 119th Infantry (Col. Edwin M. Sutherland) had discovered that a narrow strip of land between the canal and the Meuse was undefended. By the time the cavalry arrived opposite this point, Colonel Sutherland already had a footbridge across the canal and was ready with assault boats to cross the river. Disturbed only by an occasional round of artillery fire, the 119th Infantry reached the far bank and fanned out to the east and northeast. Before
daylight on 12 September, the 117th Infantry (Col. Walter M. Johnson) followed suit.12 While these crossings were in progress, the 30th Division's third regiment, the 120th Infantry, was holding the west bank of the canal farther north near the point where the canal swings northwest away from the Meuse. Commanded by Col. Hammond D. Birks, this was the regiment which on the day before (10 September) had occupied Fort Eben Emael.
Not content to sit idly while waiting for the other two regiments on the east bank to come abreast, Colonel Birks turned his attention to a lock on the canal near Fort Eben Emael. So long as the Germans held this lock, Colonel Birks believed, they might demolish it at any time to inundate some of the Dutch lowlands to the north and northwest.
Getting to the lock, Colonel Birks soon discovered, posed quite a problem. Located at the southeastern tip of the Maastricht island, the lock could be reached only from the island or from the narrow strip of flat terrain between the canal and the Meuse. At first glance, Colonel Birks and his engineer advisers could see no hope of crossing the canal at any point close to the lock; for the concrete-faced west bank of the canal at this point is too high and steep for launching assault boats in any orthodox manner. The closest place where assault boats might be launched was opposite the village of Lanaye, a mile south of the lock, but the route from Lanaye to the objective was cruelly exposed to German fire from the east bank of the Meuse.
The problem of how to get to the lock remained until a local Belgian electrical engineer suggested a solution. Two tunnels, he pointed out, leading from deep in the bowels of Fort Eben Emael, emerge along the steep west bank of the canal a short distance from the lock. Large enough to permit passage of rubber assault boats, the upper tunnel emerges about halfway up the bank. More a drainage pipe than a passageway and so small a man would have to crawl to negotiate it, the lower tunnel opens directly below the upper tunnel right at the water line.
While engineers carried assault boats through the upper tunnel, a squad of infantry slithered 500 yards through the lower to gain the canal. When the engineers overhead lowered the rubber boats down the concrete face of the west bank, the infantry clambered in and quickly paddled across. Taking a small German party guarding the lock by surprise, the infantry made short work of the wires to the demolitions.
On the enemy side of the canal and the river, the outcome of fighting on 11 September had emphasized the patent impossibility of the 49th and 275th Divisions' holding even for a reasonable length of time along the east bank of the Meuse. As early as the day before, when the 113th Cavalry Group first had crossed the Liège bridge, the German generals
had recognized that fact.13 Yet as night came on 11 September their corps commander, General Schack, reiterated their mission of preventing an attack on the West Wall before the fortifications could be readied. Form a new line, General Schack directed, facing south and running generally along the Dutch-Belgian border eastward from the Meuse in the vicinity of Lanaye. The 275th Division was to stick close to the river while the 49th Division held the line farther east and maintained contact with the 116th Panzer Division, which was falling back on Aachen before the VII US Corps. "The fight for time," General Schack warned, "is of paramount importance!"14
As General Schack must have realized, it would take more than platitudes to halt the onrush of American troops. On 12 September he appealed unsuccessfully to the Seventh Army commander, General Brandenberger, in hope of shortening his front by adjustment of the boundary with the First Parachute Army.15
On the American side, the 117th and 119th Infantry Regiments were handicapped through most of 12 September because lack of treadway bridges across the Albert and the Meuse prevented attached tank companies from crossing, but they continued to push steadily north and northeast. Driving northeast on the right flank of the infantry, Colonel Biddle's cavalry group also advanced steadily and maintained contact with the 1st Division of the VII Corps. The 30th Division and the cavalry were shoving the Germans back as though forcing open a giant door hinged on Maastricht. In little more than two days after the cavalry had wedged a foot in the door near Liège, the gap was widening.
By nightfall of 12 September the infantry troops had gained as much as five miles to bring them abreast of Colonel Birks' 120th Infantry, which by this time had crossed the canal to take the village of Lanaye. In the process, the Americans hardly were aware that the Germans had attempted a new line along the Dutch-Belgian border. By nightfall they were almost a mile inside the Netherlands. Maastricht lay but four miles away.
The Germans made one feeble counterattack during the day, not for a tactical objective but in an attempt to rescue the driver and aide-de-camp of the 275th Division commander, General Schmidt, and a dispatch case containing important papers. Traveling with his aide in a command car, General Schmidt earlier in the day had narrowly escaped capture when he came suddenly upon an American patrol. As the Americans opened fire, they killed both Schmidt's driver and his aide and wounded the general in the left hip. Unaware that his companions were dead, General Schmidt hobbled and crawled away from the scene and back to his own lines, whereupon he organized a counterattack in an attempt, he said, "to rescue my comrades." The German general might better have spared the effort. Both his aide and his driver were corpses by this time, and at 30th Division headquarters American officers already were poring over the papers from the dispatch case. 1st Lt. Elwood G. Daddow had
PORTION OF FORT EBEN EMAEL
spotted the case and dashed out under fire to get it.16
Intelligence officers of the 30th Division were elated to discover among the German papers documents indicating the strength and missions of many units under the Seventh Army and a situation map spotting the command posts of the Seventh Army, two corps, and twelve divisions. In light of the fluidity of German units at the time, the documents hardly could have been as valuable as either the Germans or the Americans indicated; nevertheless, the incident had provided a cloak-and-dagger element often lacking in plodding infantry operations.
After a third day of fighting the 49th and 275th Divisions again had no alternative but to fall back and try to establish another line. Urging that the 275th Division do everything possible to prevent a crossing onto the Maastricht island, General Schack authorized a withdrawal of about three miles.17 Schack conceivably might have wished to withdraw the two divisions all the way back to the West Wall before the Americans could wipe them out completely; but Army Group B
THE ALBERT CANAL, as seen from a machine gun emplacement in Fort Eben Emael. (Captured film.)
thought otherwise. During the night of 12 September Field Marshal Model ordered specifically that the LXXXI Corps cling to the Maas River between Visé and Maastricht. Withdrawal from that front would require his special authorization, he said.18
Model probably did not know that Visé already had fallen at least twelve hours before and that his order was no longer relevant. Better informed about the true situation, General Schack paid scant attention to the order. The LXXXI Corps commander told the 275th Division to fall back on the Maastricht-Aachen highway but to hold a small sector alongside the Maas in order to keep US forces away from Maastricht long enough to permit the garrison of the Maastricht island to withdraw eastward over the city's bridges.
For his part, the ailing 275th Division commander, General Schmidt, had no faith in this plan. He apparently wanted to abandon Maastricht and fall back another four or five miles behind a minor but deep-cut stream, the Geul River. In the first place, he believed the Americans
could break any line he might form other than one behind a difficult obstacle. In the second place, he saw no reason for trying to save the Maastricht bridges, because that part of the First Parachute Army's 176th Division on the Maastricht island surely would not withdraw eastward into another division's sector but northward into the division's own rear areas.19
Only one more day was necessary to prove General Schmidt right on both scores. Indeed, he had much less chance than before to hold the line; for during the night attached tanks and organic artillery had crossed the Meuse to join the 30th Division's infantry. The two assault regiments swept forward rapidly on 13 September. The commander of the 176th Division's garrison of Maastricht and the island became convinced that the island positions were untenable. In withdrawing, the garrison turned, as General Schmidt had predicted, not to the east but to the north.
General Schmidt was not the first to discover that this American infantry-tank-artillery team was a difficult thing to stop. In the long march across northern France and Belgium, General Hobbs's troops and those of the other divisions had become masters of the art of pursuit warfare. They had attained an almost reflexive knowledge of how to fight this kind of war. The infantry-tank-artillery teams were close-knit families, into which had been adopted the fighter-bomber. At the first word to advance, the infantry would clamber to accustomed perches upon its attached tanks. Upon encountering opposition, the infantry would dismount and engage the enemy while forward observers for the artillery would bring down fire in a matter of minutes. Atop the tanks and trucks were brilliant fluorescent panels to serve as identification for the pilots of fighter-bombers flying column cover. Although weather often deterred air activity during these latter days of the pursuit, the pilots still were able to make the enemy's daytime movements a risky business.
Before dark on 13 September a battalion of the 117th Infantry entered Wijk, Maastricht's sprawling suburb lying east of the Maas, but discovered that the Germans had demolished the bridges between Wijk and the city on the island. Crossing the river in assault boats the next day (14 September), the men found the city empty of the enemy except for three Germans burning papers in the local Gestapo headquarters.
In the meantime, the other battalions of Colonel Johnson's regiment and those of the 119th Infantry were pushing northeast to gain the line of the Geul River. Not without some trepidation did the two regiments approach the Geul, for the valley of this little tributary of the Maas is a marked feature in a region where hills fuse with lowlands. From a captured document, XIX Corps intelligence had determined that the Germans planned to defend the line of the Geul as a switch position between Aachen and Maastricht, thereby tying in the West Wall at Aachen with the First Parachute Army's line along the Albert and Meuse-Escaut Canals,20 in what had been designated as the West Stellung.
The Germans did intend to defend the Geul, but the American advances on 13 September into Wijk and farther east along the boundary between the 49th and 275th Divisions near the town of Gulpen came close to compromising the position before it could be established. Registering particular concern about the gap at Gulpen, Field Marshal Model at Army Group B directed the LXXXI Corps to commit all available forces to restore a continuous front there. Though General Schack shifted a straggler battalion, a machine gun company, and two engineer companies of the 49th Division into the gap, this was not enough.21
Early on 14 September a battalion of the 119th Infantry crossed the Geul at a ford a mile north of Gulpen without opposition. At the same time another battalion of the 119th Infantry crossed at Valkenburg, about seven miles east of Maastricht. Choice of the Valkenburg site for a crossing was unfortunate because of the proximity of the 275th Division's artillery. With observation from atop a water tower, General Schmidt's lone original battery of 105-mm. howitzers plus three other newly attached batteries could readily adjust their fire on the crossing.22 Though the Germans claimed to have reoccupied Valkenburg itself, the 119th Infantry still maintained a foothold beyond the Geul.
With Maastricht captured and bridgeheads having apparently compromised the Geul switch position, General Hobbs now was ready to wheel to the east in order to assault the West Wall north of Aachen. The fact that he failed to do so immediately, the German commanders opposite him could attribute only to the possibility that he was busy regrouping and moving up reinforcements and supplies.23
Although General Hobbs did use the opportunity to move Colonel Birks' 120th Infantry forward, this was not his real reason for a pause. General Hobbs was, in reality, perturbed by the fact that any move to the east would leave his left flank dangling. On his right flank he had adequate protection from a screen raised by the 113th Cavalry Group along an eight-mile front in the direction of the VII Corps near Aachen; but on his left flank the 2d Armored Division still was straining to come abreast through the marshy flatlands west and northwest of Maastricht. General Hobbs told his regiments to put in bridges across the Geul and strengthen the bridgeheads, but the 30th Division would not drive eastward alone.
More dependent upon bridges than an infantry division, the 2d Armored Division under Maj. Gen. Ernest N. Harmon had been a day later than the 30th Division in beginning to advance beyond the Albert Canal.24 Crossing the British bridge at
Beeringen at first light on 11 September, General Harmon's reconnaissance battalion had driven southeast to re-enter the XIX Corps zone before dark at a point north of Hasselt. A counterattack during the night by contingents of Colonel Landau's 176th Division and occasionally stanch resistance the next day so delayed the battalion in clearing a stretch of the north bank of the Albert Canal that supporting engineers did not get a bridge completed until midnight of 12 September.
Thereupon, CCA under Col. John H. Collier rumbled across, though not until daylight of 13 September would the left hook of General Corlett's double envelopment of the Albert Canal line really begin to roll.
With the reconnaissance battalion protecting the left flank, Colonel Collier's CCA drove eastward on 13 September toward the Maas. Resistance took the form of numerous roadblocks, reinforced by mines and occasional antitank guns and defended by tenacious knots of infantry. Though the marshy terrain forced the armor to stick to the roads and limited maneuver against the roadblocks, the enemy's 176th Division was no more equal to holding an unyielding line than were the two divisions opposite the XIX Corps' other wing. On both 12 and 13 September, the enemy commander, Colonel Landau, had to fall back several miles and try to form a new line. Governed by the only main road even approximating the desired direction of advance, Colonel Collier's CCA had to take a somewhat circuitous route northeast toward the town of Asch, thence east and southeast to the Maastricht Canal north of Maastricht. Even so, the armor took only two days to cover the fifteen miles.
Before the 2d Armored Division could come fully abreast of the 30th Division, somebody had to clear the Maastricht island. General Harmon had intended that CCB (Brig. Gen. Isaac D. White) cross the Albert south of Maastricht, sweep the island, then pass through Maastricht and drive northeast along the east bank of the Juliana Canal, which parallels the Maas north of Maastricht. That would put CCB alongside the left flank of the 30th Division in a drive aimed at Sittard, a city that was to serve as a northern anchor when the assault turned eastward against the West Wall. But on 14 September a Bailey bridge General White's engineers were constructing across the Albert Canal to the Maastricht island buckled just before completion. CCB's attack had to wait another day.
Actually, little need remained for clearing the Maastricht island. The onrush of CCA driving eastward toward the Maastricht Canal and the entrance of a battalion of the 30th Division into Wijk, the eastern suburb of Maastricht, had convinced the 176th Division commander, Colonel Landau, that any attempt to defend the island or the city could end only in destruction of the forces involved. Ordering all his units during the night of 13 September to fall back behind the Maastricht Canal north of Maastricht, Colonel Landau abandoned both the island and the city.
In approving this withdrawal, Field Marshal Model at Army Group B directed an adjustment of the boundary between the First Parachute Army and the Seventh Army. Heretofore, the First Parachute Army's 176th Division had operated only west of the Maas; now the division would be responsible for a sector on the east bank extending northeastward
toward Sittard. The boundary would run from the vicinity of Meerssen, five miles northeast of Maastricht, northeastward in the direction of Geilenkirchen, a German border town twelve miles north of Aachen. The new' enemy boundary would be roughly identical to that between the 2d Armored and 30th Divisions.25
Rather than sit idly on the west bank of the Maastricht Canal, Colonel Collier's CCA late on 14 September jumped the canal onto the Maastricht island, only a step behind Colonel Landau's withdrawing Germans. By the next day, when General White's CCB at last bridged the Albert south of Maastricht, Colonel Collier's combat command already had cleared all stragglers from the island. General White was free to move immediately cast of the Maas and start the drive on Sittard. By nightfall of 15 September a task force of CCB had secured a tiny bridgehead under fire across the Geul northwest of Meerssen.
Now that the corps armor was coming abreast of the 30th Division, General Hobbs on 16 September renewed his attack eastward to reach the West Wall north of Aachen, though the promise of a protected north flank for the infantry still needed two days for fulfillment. Moving up assault guns, the 176th Division delivered such intensive shellfire on CCB's little bridgehead near Meerssen that it took the armor all of 16 September to fill out the bridgehead. Although CAA utilized the 119th Infantry's bridge over the Geul at Valkenburg, Colonel Collier's combat command came under such heavy interdictory fires in the Valkenburg defile that it too needed an entire day to cross the river. On 17 September the armor gradually expanded its two bridgeheads, each to a depth of about two miles, but not so much through sheer weight as through the enemy's fear of envelopment. Probings by the 2d Armored Division's reconnaissance battalion across the Maastricht Canal north of Maastricht had convinced Colonel Landau, the 176th Division commander, that the Americans intended to drive from that direction to link with their forces from the Geul bridgeheads in a pincers movement. To escape envelopment, Colonel Landau began to withdraw in the direction of Sittard.26
On 18 September both CCA and CCB broke loose to cover the remaining six miles to Sittard. That set telephones to ringing high up the German chain of command. It was of "decisive importance," Field Marshal Model informed the First Parachute Army's General Student, that his forces hold the line at Sittard and keep the Americans out of the West Wall. OB WEST already had made available one infantry division (the 12th), which was even then restoring the line against the VII US Corps in the Stolberg Corridor southeast of Aachen; in a matter of days now General Brandenberger's Seventh Army was to get another fresh division, the 183d Volks Grenadier Division, which General Brandenberger was to commit between Sittard and Aachen. Relief was on the way, the Army Group B commander said, in effect; hold out until then!27
General Student might have reacted with more vigor to Model's appeal had he
not at this time had his hands full with as grave a threat as the Western Front had known since the Allies first neared the German border just the day before, deep in the rear areas of the First Parachute Army within the Netherlands, thousands of Allied parachutes had blossomed in an airborne operation awe-inspiring in scope.28 General Student nevertheless spared a small Kampfgruppe from the 10th SS Panzer Division, which had been refitting far behind the lines, to go to Sittard and counterattack on 19 September.29
As all concerned soon discovered, this Kampfgruppe might have served the German cause better had Student retained it to fight the Allied parachutists. The counterattack delayed the 2d Armored Division's CCB a day, but CCA continued to push northeastward toward Geilenkirchen to enter that portion of Germany which projects into Holland in the form of a cat's head and forequarters. The West Wall lay but a few miles to the east. The enemy commander, Colonel Landau, expected total disaster to overtake his division at any moment.30
In the meantime, General Hobb's 30th Division on the right wing of the XIX Corps had broken out of the Geul bridgeheads more readily than had the armor, despite the fact that the enemy had received several infantry battalions as reinforcements. By last light on 16 September the infantry columns and their supporting tanks and tank destroyers obviously were ready to roll across a remaining eight or nine miles to the German border. Indeed, at the town of Simpelveld, some companies of the 120th Infantry already were no more than three miles from the border. Here Field Marshal Model directed a futile counterattack by an SS assault gun battalion that represented Army Group B's only remaining reserve for commitment in this sector.
All through the evening of 16 September, General Schmidt kept the LXXXI Corps switchboard busy with appeals to permit his 275th Division to withdraw to a new line near the border. The American thrust to Simpelveld had sliced through on the boundary between his division and that of General Macholz' 49th Division. Most of his units were north of that penetration, some still as far west as the Geul River near Meerssen, and all were in imminent danger of being taken from the rear should the Americans turn north from Simpelveld. Yet neither the LXXXI Corps commander, General Schack, nor the Seventh Army Chief of Staff, Col. Rudolf-Christoph Freiherr von Gersdorff, had any ear for General Schmidt's impassioned pleas. Except for a few scattered replacement units, the West Wall from Aachen northward, they knew, lay naked. No matter what happened, Generals Schmidt and Macholz must hold as far west of the West Wall as possible until the promised 183d Volks Grenadier Division could arrive.31
Just as the 12th Division's race into the Stolberg Corridor to prevent a breakthrough southeast of Aachen must have left more than one German commander's hair on end, so the arrival of the 183d Volks Grenadier Division in the West Wall north of Aachen was a matter of split-second timing. Under the command of Generalleutnant Wolfgang Lange, the 183d Division had been refitted and rehabilitated in Austria. Like the 12th Division, the 183d was at full strength and completely equipped, except for its assault gun battalion. Its troops, however, were largely Austrian, inadequately trained, and inexperienced.32
On 17 September the inexorable push of General Hobbs's 30th Division continued. On the division's left wing, the 119th Infantry tore right through the middle of the 275th Division to capture Heerlen, the last Dutch town of appreciable size in this sector. The 120th Infantry on the right actually crossed the German border east of Simpelveld but at a point where the West Wall lay more than a mile behind the border. The enemy still had time to get the 183d Division into the pillboxes.
As was the American custom, the Germans noted, the U.S. troops during the night of 17 September "called off the war at midnight." As the front settled down, train upon train bearing arms and men of the 183d Volks Grenadier Division rolled into blacked-out railheads along the Roer River. The entire division would require two more nights to arrive, but a strong vanguard was soon en route toward assembly areas near the front.33
Having won a third lap of the race for the West Wall, the Germans were in no haste to substitute the 183d Division for those replacement units already in the pillboxes and for the withdrawing survivors of the 49th and 275th Divisions. Model instead withheld the fresh division close behind the pillboxes as a tactical reserve.34
Unaware that a frenzied race for the West Wall had been taking place, the Americans in the meantime had been pushing steadily forward. On 18 September General Hobbs committed the 117th Infantry to extend his left flank in the direction of the 2d Armored Division; by nightfall the 119th Infantry in the center of the 30th Division had reached positions overlooking the little Wurm River and the forward reaches of the West Wall. The 2d Armored Division, in turn, pushed into Gangelt on the corps north flank on 19 September. In the process the armor shoved what was left of Colonel Landau's 176th Division back to the north and northeast and severed all contact between the 176th Division and General Schmidt's 275th.35
To Field Marshal Model the gap between the two armies appeared particularly dangerous, for it constituted an open route into Germany northwest of the West Wall strongpoint of Geilenkirchen by which the West Wall might be pierced in a sector where Model had virtually no troops at all. Drawing a new boundary between the First Parachute and Seventh Armies, Model gave part of the old 176th Division sector to the Seventh Army and
told General Lange to counterattack with a Kampfgruppe of his 183d Volks Grenadier Division, re-establish contact between the 176th and 275th Divisions, and subsequently relieve the 275th Division and northern elements of the 49th Division. "I expect," said the Army Group B commander, not without some causticity, "that once [the] 183d Volks Grenadier Division is committed, the withdrawal of the army's right wing will at last be brought to a halt."36
Unfortunately for the Germans, Field Marshal Model's information about the front was running several hours behind reality. In most of the sectors where he intended the 183d Division to take over, either the 2d Armored or the 30th Division already had arrived. The 2d Armored Division, for example, reached the village of Teveren, a stone's throw from Geilenkirchen. In addition, the LXXXI Corps commander, General Schack, ran into difficulties at every turn in trying to assemble forces and arrange proper support for the 183d Division. Delay after delay finally ended in ineffective improvisation. Though a Kampfgruppe eventually did attack into the north flank of the 2d Armored Division, it accomplished nothing other than to reestablish contact between the two German armies.
When this maneuver failed, the German commanders acted on the assumption that an immediate assault against the West Wall was inevitable. Relieving those troops of the 183d Division that were west of the West Wall with heterogeneous forces, they thrust the entire division into the pillboxes. The division's responsibility extended from Geilenkirchen south to the area opposite Rimburg. From here the remains of the 49th Division, holding a small bridgehead at the Dutch town of Kerkrade, tied in with the 116th Panzer Division north of Aachen. The remnants of the 275th Division were collected in the West Wall east of Geilenkirchen.37
An immediate assault was the American intention. As early as 18 September General Corlett alerted both the 2d Armored and 30th Divisions to prepare to hit the West Wall. The next day he ordered an attack on the following day, 20 September. The XIX Corps was to breach the West Wall, seize crossings over the Roer River nine miles beyond, and assist the VII Corps in encircling Aachen.38
This was the intention. The event was different because of a factor beyond General Corlett's control.
This factor had seen its beginning during the first days of September when General Bradley had transferred one of Corlett's divisions to the Third Army. The loss added to Corlett's difficulty in solving the problem of an exposed left flank. Before the transfer, Field Marshal Montgomery had announced plans for commitment of part of his 21 Army Group close alongside the left flank of the First Army, and thus of the XIX Corps. Although Montgomery had stipulated that the main weight of the British drive was to be directed against the Lower Rhine
between Wesel and Arnhem, he had stated that he intended to threaten frontally the western face of the Ruhr between Duesseldorf and Duisberg. Writing later, General Bradley maintained that Montgomery had told him he planned "to advance straight against the Ruhr as a feint, but after reaching the vicinity of the Rhine was then going to throw a force around to the north."39 In either event, a feint against the Ruhr would have involved a British advance close alongside the First Army's left flank.
The trouble began when the threat against the face of the Ruhr did not develop. Instead, the Second British Army had begun to drive almost due north into the Netherlands at a point south of Eindhoven. Then Field Marshal Montgomery had suggested and General Eisenhower had authorized a special operation known as MARKET-GARDEN to be launched in the Netherlands on 17 September to extend the Second Army's axis of advance even farther to the north. When the First US Army continued to drive northeastward, the result was a growing gap which left both British and Americans with exposed flanks. Neither had the troops at hand to fill the gap adequately.
To do what he could to fill the gap, Montgomery had committed the 8 British Corps to drive north and northeast on the right wing of the Second Army; but like the XIX Corps, the 8 Corps had only two divisions. Two divisions could not hope to eliminate a great right-angle gap which ran from the vicinity of Nijmegen to the boundary with the XIX Corps near Sittard.
On 19 September, the date when General Corlett issued the order to attack the West Wall, the great gap already was a matter of primary concern. The front of the 8 Corps ran along the Maastricht Canal from a point near the army group boundary thirteen miles north of Maastricht northwest to Bree, thence to a bridgehead across the Meuse-Escaut Canal, eight miles beyond. The 30 Corps in the meantime had pushed north into Eindhoven, enabling patrols of the 8 Corps to get into Heeze, southeast of Eindhoven; thus the tip of the 8 Corps at Heeze was more than thirty-five miles from the main concentration of the 2d US Armored Division at Sittard. A great triangular expanse of territory of more than 112 square miles lay open to the Germans. The northern flank of the XIX Corps already was exposed for more than nine miles. Continuing east through the West Wall would extend the flank proportionately.
No one could say that the XIX Corps had not kept its own house in order, for General Corlett had made special efforts to clear his zone right up to the boundary with the British. On 16 September, while the 2d Armored Division was attacking cast of the Maas River to close up to the boundary around Sittard, a special task force had crossed the Maastricht Canal just north of Maastricht to attack north and clear a strip of land lying between the canal and the Maas as far north as the boundary with the British. Commanded by Lt. Col. William M. Stokes, Jr., the task force was composed of the separate 99th Infantry Battalion (Lt. Col. Robert G. Turner), a battalion of the 2d Armored Division's
tanks, plus increments of artillery, engineers, and medics. Either pushing back or annihilating parts of the 176th Division, Task Force Stokes in three days had covered the nine miles north to the boundary. While the tanks returned to their parent division, the 99th Infantry Battalion stayed behind to defend the sector and maintain contact with the British to the northwest on the other side of the canal.40
On the other hand, clearing the entire zone was not sufficient to override the fact that the responsibility for protecting First Army's left flank belonged undeniably to the XIX Corps. First Army's General Hodges and the Second British Army's Lt. Gen. Miles C. Dempsey had discussed the problem on 15 September and reiterated that understanding."41 For the moment, at least, the British had incurred no obligation to advance east of the Maas River. Even if the British cleared the west bank of the Maas, the XIX Corps still would be in danger, for most of the open flank lay east of the river.
For all the concern about the open flank, General Corlett intended to go through with the West Wall attack on 20 September before the Germans could get set in their fortifications. Assisted by a saturation air bombardment, the 30th Division was to assault the line near the village of Rimburg, between Geilenkirchen and Aachen, nine miles north of Aachen. The 2d Armored Division was to protect the corps north flank along the Sittard-Geilenkirchen highway and prepare to send one combat command through the West Wall to exploit to the east the gains of the 30th Division. To assist the armor on the north flank, General Corlett told the 30th Division to take over the job of maintaining contact with the VII Corps west of Aachen; then he transferred the 113th Cavalry Group to the corps north flank on the left of the armor between Sittard and the Maas.42
As soon as the 30th Division could pierce the West Wall, General Hobbs was to turn his infantry southeast to make a junction seven miles away with the VII Corps northeast of Aachen. But by daylight of 20 September—D Day for the assault—both Hobbs and General Corlett were displaying mounting concern over the fact that once the 30th Division turned to make this junction, both the division's left and right flanks would be exposed, the latter toward enemy forces still remaining in Aachen. Although neither commander doubted that the infantry could pierce the West Wall itself, the experience of the VII Corps near Stolberg had shown that the Germans, for all their deficiencies, could muster reserves for commitment at critical points. Because the XIX Corps was drastically short on artillery ammunition, the fear of German reserves took on added weight. The ammunition shortage likewise increased the need for large-scale air support, and the weather forecast for 20 September was not at all promising. General Corlett insisted that he make no attack without adequate support from the air.
Because the weather failed to clear sufficiently either on 2o September or the day after, General Corlett postponed the
offensive both times. To the Germans, these two days meant an unexpected but welcome chance to improve their positions. To the Americans, they provided an opportunity to ponder those apprehensions generated by the exposed north flank, by the paucity of ammunition reserves, and by the possibility of violent enemy reaction whenever the 30th Division exposed both flanks to link up with the VII Corps. News about the German countermeasures against the V Corps bridgehead at Wallendorf did nothing to alleviate these fears. General Corlett must have noted that from the British front in the Netherlands all the way down to the Third Army's battleground at Metz, the enemy was rebounding almost miraculously.
Though not so obvious as cloudy skies or scant stocks of ammunition, this growing belief that, after all, the Germans had only been playing dead was perhaps the most important deterrent to launching the West Wall attack. Besides, the port of Brest had fallen; the commanders must have been aware that if they waited long enough, at least one of the divisions from Brittany might become available for the assault. In midmorning of 22 September, after all three of the First Army's corps commanders had conferred for two hours with the army commander, General Hodges authorized General Corlett to postpone the attack indefinitely.43
On this same day of 22 September, the VII Corps went on the defensive in the Stolberg Corridor and the V Corps withdrew the last troops from. the ill-starred Wallendorf bridgehead. Thus, all of the First Army with the exception of two regiments of the 9th Division in the Huertgen Forest sector settled down to a period of readjustment of lines, replenishment of supplies, and general preparation for the day when General Hodges would direct a continuation of the drive toward the Rhine.
General Corlett's XIX Corps in ten days had pushed from the Albert Canal to the German border, a distance ranging from fifteen to thirty-three miles. The corps had cleared approximately 547 square miles of territory in Belgium, the Netherlands, and Germany and had pushed back parts of three German divisions. The Germans nevertheless had made noteworthy inroads on the speed of the American advance. When combined with the gasoline shortage and the reduction in strength which had cut the XIX Corps to two divisions, this resistance had provided sufficient time to enable a fresh German unit to reach the West Wall and to deny the XIX Corps a timely intervention in the neighboring battle of the Stolberg Corridor.