Saturday, February 7, 2015

Guest Blog: When Things Went Sour on the Sauer

My father-in-law, who served in the 5th Infantry Division of the U.S. Army during World War II from 1941 until 1945, saw much bitter fighting. He rarely talked about his experiences until I started researching his unit and asking questions. Then he opened up. One story he told was of a brutal river crossing. I always assumed it was the historic assault crossing of the Rhine when he was strafed by a German plane early the next morning. Militarily speaking, though, it was a relatively easy crossing.

My brother, who is an amateur historian, has been helping me identify the crossing my father-in-law so well remembered. We thought it might be the crossing of the Sauer river soon after the Battle of the Bulge, but my father-in-law's regiment, the 2nd Infantry Regiment, had been held in reserve. So we continue our search.

But the crossing of the Sauer is a story that should be told; after all, if his regiment hadn't been held in reserve, my husband may not have been born! Today is the 70th anniversary of that crossing, which began during the night of 6-7 February 1945.

So over to my guest blogger, my brother, John:

Rivers have always made for a natural defense line during times of war.  The lack of cover (unless submerged, of course) and unobstructed views make for a ready-made no-man’s land.  Conversely, an assault crossing of a well defended river line can be one of the most harrowing tasks a soldier can be called upon to undertake.  In February 1945 the men of US 5th Infantry Division found out just how harrowing it could be when they attempted an assault across the Sauer River, which separates Germany and Luxembourg.  A common misconception of World War II is that the Battle of the Bulge was the last hurrah of the German Army, and that afterwards the Allies advanced almost effortlessly into Germany against only sporadic and dispirited opposition.  The truth was that much hard combat remained and the Germans were still a dangerous enemy, especially when fighting from prepared positions behind natural defense line such as the Sauer.

The Sauer operation was part of the larger Eifel offensive, an ill-fated attempt by Lieutenant-General Omar N. Bradley’s 12th Army Group to continue the momentum it had gained after the relief of Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge and push its way through the rugged Eifel Mountains.  The mission of 5th Infantry Division was to cross the Sauer between Bollendorf and Echternach and take the first line of hills beyond the river to safeguard a march route toward the town of Bitburg.  In order to preserve the element of surprise it was decided to forego the usual artillery preparation that ordinarily is used to soften up enemy positions prior to an assault.  As the troops prepared to cross on the night of February 6th the weather turned cold and snowy.  But the river was swollen and turbulent from a recent unseasonable thaw.  Climbing aboard small inflatable boats (which were actually Luftwaffe left-overs from a captured depot) the troops set out from the western bank, eight men to a boat.  The little boats proved unequal to the fast 12 mph river current.  Many capsized almost immediately, dumping their occupants into the icy water.  Others careened out of control.  Those boats that stayed afloat and on course long enough to reach mid stream became the targets of a fusillade of fire from the German held bank.  Under the light of flares German machine guns raked the little dinghies plodding across the river.

Sauer River; photograph courtesy of ibiblio.org

Out of two regiments sent across the river that night only two boats and sixteen men made landfall on eastern bank.  It is a testament to both the tenacity of the American soldiers and the aggressiveness of their leader, divisional commander Major-General S. LeRoy Irwin, that these sixteen refugees on the enemy side of the river were not viewed as a lost cause to be rescued but rather a toehold to be supported and reinforced.  Irwin ordered all available artillery to fire just beyond the toehold, tanks were even driven to the river’s edge to give direct fire support against enemy pillboxes on the opposite bank.  But try as he might Irwin could not get any more men across the river.  As night fell on February 7th those lonely sixteen men were still the only American soldiers on the eastern bank of the Sauer.  Every effort to span the river with footbridges failed due the strong currents.  Finally, on February 8th the tiniest of reinforcement got across:  a heavy machine gun section and six additional boat loads of infantrymen.  It was not until February 11th that the river was successfully bridged—on the 12th try—and the tactical situation was thus transformed in the American’s favor.


Maj. Gen. S. Leroy Irwin (right), commanding general 5th Infantry
Division; photograph courtesy of ibiblio.org

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