Kampf um Saarlouis
Zitadelle von Saarlautern
von Dezember 1944 bis März 1945
Smashing The Siegfried Line
Major General Stanley E. Reinhart took command of the sector on March 7 and, by March 9, the relief effort was completed. The division became a frontline unit, with some men already serving four days in combat. The 65th`s entry into the European Theater of Operations was part of the great “Spring Offensive”, engineered to smash through the remaining German resistance and halt the Wehrmacht.
Diversionary attacks began at 0300 hours on March 13, and the 65th engaged in some of the fiercest fighting along the Siegfried Line. Saarlautern (now Saarlouis), Germany, was heavily guarded with pillbox bunkers, making the attack particularly difficult. The 65th, on the southern flank of the XX Corps, initiated limited objective attacks within the Saarlautern bridgehead to keep the enemy from reinforcing the units opposing the other divisions in the corps. The frontline ran across the west bank of the Saar River, from a point five miles north of Merzig, south to a point approximately two and a half miles below Saarlautern.
The 260th Infantry moved into a small bridgehead, which had previously been forced across the river at Saarlautern. The 259th and the 261st Infantry went into the line below and above the bridgehead respectively. The 65th Reconnaissance Troop protected the north flank of the division in the 261st zone
The period was characterized by aggressive action and the extensive use of artillery fire. Almost immediately there were casualties, but the 65th pushed forward.
During the 12 days between March 7 and 18, the 65th fired some 1,275 missions, with almost 19,000 rounds expended. Patrols probed the area, and on March 10, four enlisted men of the 65th captured a German pill box and returned with its twelve former occupants to merit the division`s first battlefield awards.
Attack on Saarlautern
General Patton planned for Walker`s XX Corps, with the 65th Infantry Division attached, to strike first. For the opening attack, General Walker had an outsize corps of four infantry divisions, two cavalry groups, and an armored division. One cavalry group (the 3rd) started the fighting during the afternoon of March 12 with a diversionary in a loop of the Moselle near the confluence of the Moselle and the Ruwer. After nightfall, as a drizzling rain diminished, troops of three infantry division moved toward lines of departure along the periphery of the Saar bridgehead south of Trier.
At 0245 on March 13, an impressive total of thirty-one divisional and corps field artillery battalions opened fire. Fifteen minutes later, the infantry moved through the darkness to the attack.
After daylight, the 260th Infantry of the 65th Division, under Maj. Stanley E. Reinhart, staged a diversionary, limited objective attack on the Saarlautern bridgehead.
The men opened fire on the Saarlautern bridgehead, in conjunction with the XX Corps ‘three-division offensive to the north. Several city blocks were taken, but the 260th had to withdraw in the face of strong enemy resistance. Still, the German High Command spoke of repelling fierce offensive action in the vicinity of Saarlautern.
Nowhere was the going easy. The terrain-high, fir-covered hills, deep draws and ravines, and a secondary road net already churned into mud by German vehicles, was enough in itself to see to that; but the German regiments, seriously depleted in numbers, could take advantage of the difficult ground only at isolated points, rather than along a continuous line. In the darkness, the attacking battalions stumbled onto some enemy position, ran into mine fields, and drew heavy small arms and mortar fire, but more often than not, a sidestepping to the left or right brought quick relief and continued advance.
The next day, March 14, the drive slowed down. The Germans, wherever encountered, fought back defiantly, giving no indication of general withdrawal. Visiting all three division command posts during the day, General Patton was disturbed at the slow pace. General Patch`s Seventh Army, General Patton knew, was to be behind its offensive the next morning. Patton was concerned lest Patch beat him to the Rhine.
Patton need not have worried. On the third day, March 15, no general German collapse developed, but the signs were there.
Push to Saarlautern
We went into position where we could fire on Saarlautern, relieving an outfit already there. It was a small, typical farm village. We lived in houses as we did most of the way across Germany. We violated all rules set in basic training. They always told us “the switchboard will be dug in so the operator`s head and switchboard will be 18 inches below the ground, 100 yards behind the guns”. So what do we do? We put the switchboard in an upstairs room, one hundred yards in front of the guns. We could not keep glass in the windows even if we had wanted to, the muzzle blast from the guns being so great. We had two lines to the OP and two the Fire Detection Center. If one went out during the night (and they generally did) they would use the other until we fixed it the next morning.
In the afternoon we would make ourselves scarce to keep off detail and wash clothes, etc. And we would usually have a little guard duty to stand at night. It wasn`t bad at all. I liked to get out work on the switchboard lines. When I was on the switchboard, I caught up on letter writing and read. It seemed like we were there quite a while. We received a few shells incoming, but they never got close.
On March 14, the 65th division captured the towns of Nieder Felle and Fell. The new commander chief of German forces in the west, Field-Marshal Kesselring, reported to Hitler on the situation at the front. He said that, in his opinion, although the situation was undoubtedly critical for the German troops, it would almost certainly be possible to halt the Allies if the western armies were reinforced by several handpicked divisions transferred from the Eastern front after the defensive success he envisioned by the Germans on the Oder.
Despite his optimism, Kesselring`s prediction never came true. On March 17, the 65thth Division prepared to break out of the Saarlautern bridgehead. The 261st reconnaissance patrols enabled the regiment to put parts of two battalions across the river at the hamlet of Menningen, about two miles south of Merzig. They crossed the river Saar on March 18 and captured the heights south of Merzig in readiness for the offensive against Dillingen.
In contrast to the rapid progress made in the zone by the 261st Infantry, the main effort in the Saarlautern bridgehead met with fierce enemy opposition. The 259th with the 1st battalion of the 260st Infantry attached, advanced only 1,500 yards. The 260th, with the 1st battalion of the 261st attached, had seized only a few city blocks inside Saarlautern. Therefore, the plan was altered and the division was able to break through the Siegfried Line.
Time Line of the 65th`s First Offensive
In early March, the 65th was deployed along the west bank of the Saar River. The 259th and 260th held a bridgehead in Saarlautern on the right. On the left, the 261st (with a combat Engineer Battalion attached) occupied defensive positions along some 12 miles of front. On March 12, the 261st Liaison Officer with Division reported that orders were in preparation for offensive action. The 259th and the 260th were to make the main attack through Saarlautern, with one battalion of the 261st attached to the 260st. The rest of the 261st would remain in position, prepared to move to the Saarlautern area as Division reserve.
As Patton had discovered three months before, the area in and near Saarlautern was very heavily prepared for defense. A frontal attack against these Positions would be very difficult and costly, especially because the 65th would be executing its first offensive operation. Therefore, it appeared reasonable for the 65zh to use the procedure being employed by the 26th Division. The 26th had crossed the Saar north of the 261st and was attacking southward, thereby hitting the Siegfried Line on its flank rather than on its front. When the extreme left of the 261st was reached, the 26th would execute a “column left” and attack to the east, perpendicular to the river. Accordingly, the 261st could initiate and continue this method of attack, with the support of successive elements of the 65th by fire from their positions they currently occupied. The final objective of this attack would be the rear of the Saarlautern defenses. Various other reasons also favored this course of action.
On March 13, after much thought, Carraway decided to adopt the procedure of the 26th Division. He prepared a letter listing the reasons for this change and gave it to General Copeland for delivery to General Reinhart. No one but Carraway knew he took this action.
At a meeting of the commanders at Division Headquarters, the plan for the coming attack was announced on March 14. It was exactly as the liaison officer had reported. After the meeting ended, Carraway was informed that his recommendation had been disapproved. In the afternoon of March 15, Headquarters ordered each frontline battalion of the 261st to send a reconnaissance patrol across the river without delay. The 3rd Battalion soon reported that the four-man patrol of L Company had captured a large bunker with 12 Germans within.
On March 16, Sgt. Hairston, the leader of the above patrol, was a guest at lunch with the regimental staff. He expressed the opinion that probably some Germans would be quite glad to surrender Accordingly, he received a message for his battalion commander, directing him to make every effort to secure loud speaker equipment and use it to broadcast statements in German which might persuade other Germans to give up. Broadcasting followed that very night, drew heavy fire, and caused one German soldier to swim the river to surrender. The main attack of the 65th was launched in Saarlautern on March 17, Soon after daylight, on the front of the 3rd Battalion (where the broadcasting had occurred) a dozen Germans on the bank of the Saar called out that they surrendered. When told, Callaway rushed down to the river where he confirmed his hop and belief that this surrender, and the absence of German fire, indicated that the enemy in the area had withdrawn. Accordingly, the 3rd Battalion was ordered to cross the river immediately and seize the high ground about two miles up the river toward Saarlautern. This action was reported to Division with some trepidation, as authority for such a movement had been denied. However, they received approval for both the 2nd and 3rd Battalion to cross the river, to attack the Siegfried Line in flank and to continue toward the rear of Saarlautern. They made slow progress, encountering many mined areas and receiving resistance in the town of DILLINGEN. That night the 1st Battalion moved by truck to Saarlautern.
The 2nd Battalion captured Dillingen early in the morning of March 18. By that afternoon, verbal orders directed the 261st to make a coordinated attack to block the retreat of Germans along the main highway from Saarlautern to Kaiserslautern, the next day at 1300 hours. That night the 1st Battalion again moved – back to the 261st.
On March 19, the 261st assembled along the designated line of departure for the attack. Even though no enemy could be seen, the attack went on because the 261st needed to regroup. The regiment had never participated in a Combat Team Exercise, so needed this training. After heavy preparatory fire by artillery, the attack met with no resistance and the advance continued to (and the along) the main road towards Kaiserslautern. While the attack was too late to block the Germans from retreating, pursuit was continued during the night with only occasional patrol actions resulting.
On March 20, the 869th Field Artillery caught up with the 261st and helped the regiment to move some 25 miles. Little opposition was received. On March 21, all elements of the division passed through Kaiserslautern and went into bivouac areas east of the city.
The 65th Division`s first taste of battle in the early days of March,1945, was much different than the hardened troops that emerged from war two months later. One GI remembered back to the night of March 17.
The battalion moved up to the village of BEAUMARAIS. The town was right behind the rifle units. To get to BEAUMARAIS, the men had to pass through a 30MM cannon company shooting like a bunch of Chinese firecrackers. The trucks, under blackout, wound their way along a trail that had package charges still tied to the trees. They didn`t dare drive faster than about five miles per hour. The trucks eventually reached a street that led to the village center where the FDC set up a CP in complete blackness. The battalion was close enough to the action to receive incoming rifle fire. Shrapnel flew everywhere. The American mortars were located to the rear. All vehicles had to be hidden and men found refuge behind concrete walls. The 720th Field Artillery Battalion laid out the infantry`s crossing of the Saar River the next morning. The mission had changed from selective shooting at targets to pouring the fire out in the front of the foot soldiers. They crossed successfully, and headed for the Siegfried Line while the battalion stayed put, still close enough to be of aid. The battalion tracked the infantry by way of its radios, listening as the men told each other were to use satchel charges, mortars, and hand grenades. They heard as the men broke through the fortification, sharing their success with pride.
The next morning the battalion moved up, crossing the Saar River. They headed through SAARLAUTERN and up to SCHWARZENHOLZ. They passed through a city totally destroyed, with white sheets strung out by the civilians to show surrender. Dead Germans lay by the roadside. American overcoats and other excess clothing and even K-rations scattered the road, jettisoned by GIs to lighten their loads. The battalion passed a long line of the 65th`s GIs trudging up a steep hill. They looked exhausted from bearing the brunt of the fighting.