Monday, February 22, 2016

Guest Blog: Long, Bloody Battle for Metz

I recently discovered a third cousin once removed in my Jennings line served in the 5th Infantry Division during World War II as did my father-in-law, Peter Charles Dagutis. Sadly, my cousin Haskins Thomas Farrar, died near Metz. So I asked my brother, amateur World War II historian, to write a post about the battle for Metz, providing context for my father-in-law's wartime experience and the death of my cousin.

Over to John.....

As Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force in Western Euorpe General Dwight D. Eisenhower's mission was to "undertake operations aimed at the heart of Germany and the destruction of her armed forces.”  He intended to approach Germany along a broad front, taking advantage of all of the historic invasion routes between France and Germany.  One of those invasion routes was the swath of open terrain between the Ardennes and Vosges Mountains.  Situated along the northern edge of the invasion route the city of Metz had been a kind of gatekeeper since ancient times and was unsurprisingly one of the most heavily fortified cities in Europe.  In all its long history Metz had never fallen to direct assault.  Its fortifications included a line of eleven forts constructed by the French prior to the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 that lay in a ring approximately 2½ miles outside the city.  The German defenders of World War II used this “inner ring” as infantry strongpoints.  An outer ring of eight, more modern forts—built by the Germans before the First World War—formed a line some six miles from the city.  Among the fortications was the impressive Fort Driant, which housed five 150mm guns and was protected by a deep, dry moat and covered by infantry trenches, machine gun nests and barbed wire fences.  The guns of the fort commanded a large sector of the Moselle Valley.

Eisenhower entrusted the advance past Metz and into Germany to Lieutenant-General George S. Patton, Jr.’s US Third Army.  The difficulty of Patton’s mission was three-fold:  his army had to cross the Upper Moselle River, reduce or bypass the forts and finally capture the city of Metz.  The American effort to take Metz began on 6 September, 1944 with the unconventional tactic of using 7th Armored Division as a kind of reconnaissance-in-force to probe for crossing sites over the Moselle both north and south of Metz.  They reached the Moselle the next day and were soon followed by two infantry divisions, the 90th being directed toward Thionville north of Metz and the 5th toward Metz itself.  Despite turning back a German counter-attack the Americans could not get across the Moselle in the Thionville sector due to deadly shellfire from several German forts.  Closer to Metz 5th Infantry Division, along with elements of 7th Armored Division, managed to establish a bridgehead at Dornot, but the guns of Forts Driant and Blaise prevented the building of a bridge so the crossing had to be abandoned.  Another bridgehead was achieved on 6 September farther north at Amanvillers and a bridge was successfully erected that night.  A breakout was not to be, however; gunfire from Fort Driant destroyed both the treadway and pontoon bridges and determined resistance from German panzers denied all attempts by American armored units to breakout of the bridgehead.  Although Patton felt the German reserves were thin and a breakthrough imminent if he could just keep the pressure on, by mid-September it was obvious a set piece battle would be required to defeat the defenses of Metz.

Soldiers of Third Army crossing the Moselle River; courtesy of a United States
Army in World War II, Pictorial Record: The War Against Germany: Europe
and Adjacent Areas

Another major effort against Metz would have to wait until supplies could be stockpiled.  In the meantime, Patton initiated what he called a “pecking campaign” to reduce several forts southwest of Metz, particularly the troublesome Fort Driant, whose guns had been so effective in turning back the attempt to cross the Upper Moselle in early September.  Taking the fort would unlock an avenue directly into Metz via the valley of the Moselle.  The task of taking Fort Driant fell to 5th Infantry Division, which launched its attack on 3 October behind one of the most concentrated artillery bombardments of the war.  For all of its intensity the shelling proved ineffective, for nearby German forts returned the fire, catching American infantry in their assembly areas.  Although the Americans reached the fort and gained entry the following day via a ventilator shaft, the fort’s defenders fought back skillfully in savage subterranean gun duels.  The underground battle raged for several days but the Americans failed to breach any of the fortified casemates.  By sweeping the exterior of the fort with artillery and machine gun fire the Germans denied American reinforcements from entering the battle and eventually gained the upper hand.  Patton finally decided the fort could not be defeated and called off the operation; the last American troops withdrew the night of 12-13 October.

The final battle for Metz began on 8 November.    Patton prepared an envelopment of Metz by concentric attacks from north and south.  90th Infantry Division crossed the Moselle just north of Thionville.  The combination of German artillery and rising flood waters frustrated all attempts to erect bridges until the second night, but the defending Germans could not take advantage of the precarious American situation because they were not expecting an attack so soon after the torrential downpours of the previous few days.  By the time panzers were able to mount a counter-attack the Americans were secure enough in their bridgehead to turn the enemy tanks back just short of the bridge.  After Forts Koenigsmacker and Metrich had been reduced 10th Armored Division was committed as the northern encircling pincer and from 15 November they began picking their way carefully over muddy roads to the southeast toward the Nied river.  Meanwhile, 5th Infantry Division had crossed the Seille southwest of Metz and skirted round the city to cut its eastern approaches.  They met troops from 90th Infantry Division at Pont Marais on 19 November to encircle Metz.

Third Army Soldiers entering the outskirts of Metz; courtesy of the United
States Army In Europe, Pictorial Record: The War Against Germany: Europe
and Adjacent Areas

Despite Hitler’s decree to hold Metz until the last, the Germans withdrew most of their forces out of the closing jaws of Patton’s pincers, leaving only a volksgrenadier division to garrison Metz.  95th Infantry Division closed on Metz proper from Maizieres-les-Metz while 5th Infantry Division invested the city from the southeast.  American troops entered the city on 11/18/44 after Nazi officials and many German civilians had been evacuated.  Firefights erupted throughout the city as the American infantry rooted out the last pockets of German resistance.  The garrison commander gave himself up on 21 November, thus ending the struggle for the city proper.  The outlying forts, which had been contained but not assaulted, were gradually smoked out over the next several weeks; Fort Jeanne d’Arc was the last to capitulate on 13 December.

Some historians have made much of the fact that Patton was perhaps too keen to capture Metz, that the lure of going down in history as the city’s first captor led him to direct too much attention upon the city.  Was it even necessary to capture Metz or could Patton have ensured the security of his northern flank by merely masking the city?  Patton believed it was necessary, thinking it unwise to leave the dangerous enemy concentration around Metz on his flank while transiting the invasion route into Germany.  An interesting opinion was offered by the Germans themselves in their post-war appreciation of the campaign in Europe.  Although they respected Patton as the Allies’ most aggressive general, they criticize his handling of the Lorraine campaign, particularly noting the failure of American forces to concentrate at a single point.  Patton directed his two corps toward separate objectives (Metz and Nancy), preventing them from gaining overwhelming superiority at any one sector.  Had Patton concentrated his corps for a single thrust at either Metz or Nancy, the Germans believed he would have easily broken through.  The fact that Patton did not concentrate everything on Metz (when his enemy expected him to) would tend to discount the theory the city held a kind of vainglorious attraction for him.  Those that fell in the long, bloody battle for Metz gave their lives for a legitimate and necessary military objective, one of many such objectives on the road to ridding the world of Hitler’s evil regime.

For other World War II guest posts written by my brother, visit War Stories.

Greenfield, Kent Roberts (General Editor). United States Army in World War II, Pictorial Record: The War Against Germany: Europe and Adjacent Areas, (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1951), pages 147-260.

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