Saturday, September 12, 2015

Guest Blog: When Pursuit Comes to an End

My brother John is back with another guest blog, describing the conditions in which our third cousin once removed, Wallace Jennings Horton, died during World War II on 13 September 1944.

By John Edward Jennings

Napoleon famously said “An army marches on its stomach.”  It was his testament to the importance of logistics to the success of a military operation.  More than a hundred years later Napoleon’s wisdom was still evident when the Allied armies in Europe during World War II found that long, fragile logistical trails sapped every bit as much strength from their fighting forces as a determined enemy counter-attack.  When the German Army fighting the D-Day landings finally collapsed in Normandy the entire German western front was laid bare.  As the American, British and Canadian troops leapt over the Seine River, they began a pursuit of the fleeing enemy the like of which has seldom been seen in history.  Generals Bradley, Patton and Montgomery pushed their forces forward in a mad dash across Northern France and into Belgium and the Netherlands toward the German frontier.  With the Germans in complete disarray the Allied spearheads plunged ahead ever farther, advancing up to seventy-five miles a day against negligible opposition.  But they advanced so far, so fast that they outran their supplies.

Military historians often use the term ‘tyranny of logistics’ when describing how constraints of supply imposes its own cruel authority over operations.  For the Allied armies in Western Europe in 1944, the tyrant proved less want of supplies than of transport.  Each mile their armies advanced toward Germany took them that much farther from their supply depots near the Normandy beaches.  By the time the troops approached the German frontier in early September their lines of supply stretched over 500 miles.  Every truck that could be rounded up was pressed into a transport service called the Red Ball Express, but even this expediency could not quench the thirst of the field armies.  The thirty-six Allied divisions at the front needed some 20,000 tons of supplies per day, including 800,000 gallons of gasoline.  The Red Ball Express delivered an average of less than 7000 tons per day and consumed 300,000 gallons of gasoline to do so.  Under such tyranny the Allied advance simply could not be maintained.

Operation Cobra, photograph courtesy of Battle of Normandy Tours

US 30th Infantry Division experienced fully the tyrannical lessons of Napoleon.  The division had come ashore at Omaha Beach on 10th June, 1944, just four days after the bloody battle there on D-Day.  In late July the division took part in Operation Cobra, the breakout from the Normandy beachhead.  And then early the next month they made one of the great defensive stands of the war around Mortain, where a battalion was surrounded for several days.  Undaunted, the encircled troops fought on, calling down artillery on enemy columns streaming past, thus helping to check a German counter-attack aimed at cutting off the American breakout.  During the pursuit 30th Infantry Division marched through Cambrai (France), Tournai (Belgium) and Mesh (the Netherlands).  In the process they retraced some of the same ground the division had traversed in World War I and became the first Allied soldiers to enter both the Kingdom of Belgium and the Kingdom of the Netherlands.  But gasoline could not be brought up to them fast enough and one-by-one vehicles dropped out of the march line as they ran out of fuel.

30th Infantry Division personnel looking east toward Maastricht;

The Germans used the respite brought about by the Allies’ logistical difficulties to good effect to reorganize their shattered forces and reestablish a coherent front.  German histories refer to this as the ‘Miracle in the West’.  Particular attention was paid to the sector opposite US 30th Infantry Division, where fresh reinforcements occupied well-entrenched positions along the Meuse River and Albert Canal to guard the approaches to Maastricht.  So when the troops of 30th Division set off again the second week of September to attack Maastricht the complexion of the fighting had completely changed.  Long gone was the double-time march of the pursuit.  They were instead confronted with the long, hard grind of positional warfare in which a successful advance is measured in yards, not miles…and which takes such a terrible toll on the poor foot soldier.

Men from the 119th Infantry Regiment, 30th Infantry Division, October
1944; courtesy of Old Hickory

Tune in tomorrow to read about the experiences of our ancestors, Wallace Jennings Horton.

1 comment:

  1. What an interesting read! I wish I had paid more attention in school to history, as today I so enjoy reading about WWII. I thank you for enlightening me further with more knowledge; I look forward to more stories.