Fortress Metz: The 3rd Army’s Toughest Battle

In the fall of 1944, after the Normandy break out, a three-month long struggle was fought during World War II around the fortress city of Metz, France. This fight would pit the United States 3rd Army, under General George Smith Patton Junior, against the German 1st Army, commanded by the newly appointed General der Panzertruppen Otto Von Knobelsdorff. This clash would be forgotten and pushed aside by history but it is one of great importance for the men who fought and died there. This campaign was one of the hardest fought during World War II due to the nature of Metz and its fortifications.
By September of 1944 the mighty 3rd Army had been reduced into only two corps after its triumphant march to Paris. The XII Corps was under the command of Major General Manton Eddy, while the XX Corps was under the command of Major General Walton Walker. After the three months of fighting and marching the troops were fatigued and were short on supplies. The indomitable 3rd Army although weakened  would soon be up against one of the most fortified sections of the western German front.

The Allies knew they would need a no nonsense general that would fight hard, which is why they chose General Patton to tackle the challenges of Metz.

Figure 1 General    George S. Patton

Figure 1: General George S.   Patton

Patton was fascinated by the military throughout his childhood and was regaled by stories from his dad, who served in the confederacy with distinction during the Civil War. Another man who was close to the Patton family also influenced young George this man was Colonel John Mosby, more famously known as “The Grey Ghost,” Mosby was part of Major general J.E.B Stuart’s Confederate Calvary . (1) During the summer Mosby would reenact battles from the Civil War with Patton on horseback. Patton would play the part of General Robert E. Lee and Mosby would play himself. (2) This influence and young George’s obsession with all things military, led Patton to attend the Virginia Military Institute, and then West Point. He saw his first combat in Mexico during the Mexican expedition of 1916, which was led by General “Black Jack” Pershing. During this expedition he would encounter his first experiences with close quarter combat, this took place when Patton killed three banditos with his pistol during a raid on a hacienda. He then strapped the bodies over the hood of his Dodge Touring car and drove back to Pershing with his trophies. (3) This action made Patton the first person in American history to engage an enemy in warfare using a motorized vehicle, which officially marshaled motorization into combat. (4)   His knowledge of mechanized warfare, vast knowledge of military history,and  close quarter combat would become useful during the 3rd Armies attack on the city of Metz.
During World War I Patton was again an aid to Pershing. During this time Patton focused on the idea of tank warfare; throwing himself into it with an almost religious fever writing manuals and virtually single handedly forming the tank corp. (5) He led the tank corps into combat during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive in France, and was severely wounded when a bullet pierced through his leg ripping out a large chunk of flesh from his backside. Patton nearly bled to death and before his recovery was complete the armistice was signed, Patton would not see combat again until World War II. (6)
Patton’s impressive resume continued into The second World War. He was given the assignment of creating the desert training corps in 1942. This group became proficient in tank warfare and was the first American force to land on enemy soil in World War II during Operation Torch in Africa. In 1943 after a devastating and embarrassing defeat of the United States forces at Kasserine in Africa, Patton was put in charge of the II Corps. With his strict discipline and attention to detail he turned this group of men from a loose group of misfits into a finally tuned fighting force that would achieve a sound victory in the battle of El Guettar. After his success in Africa, Patton moved onto Operation Husky. This invasion of Sicily fueled a rivalry between himself and General Bernard Montgomery of the British forces. This competition brought out the best and worst in Patton as he achieved victory in Palermo and Mesina. However the stress of these battles may have led Patton to his controversial “Slapping Incidents” in which on two separate occasions he slapped two soldiers that were suffering from battle fatigue in the face. This was almost the end of the Generals career; many high ranking officials were calling for his dismissal,but the army knew Patton’s value and suspended him from combat till 1944.
Patton was a natural born warrior and was feared by the Axis because of his reputation as an unrelenting attacker. The allies used his name and reputation while he was suspended to deceive the Germans into believing that the D-day landings would be led by Patton and that he would strike at Pas-de-Calais. To achieve this  the Allies employed special effects men from Hollywood to create a whole fictitious army that was built around Patton. They constructed fake tank barracks and fake radio chatter. This deception paid off because the German high command thought the Normandy landings were just a diversion and refused to release there reserve corps from Pas-de-Calais, allowing allied success. (7) The Allied Commanders knew they could not win the war without Patton; his reputation, experience and motto to never fight for the same piece of land twice lead to his re-instatement, and by late 1944 he was given command of the Third Army that would become the spearhead of Operation Cobra. Patton and his stout Third had success after success throughout Europe then they hit a wall in Metz.

The German commander of fortress Metz was, General Otto von Knobelsdorff. Like Patton, he was a decorated infantry officer during World War I where he earned the Iron Cross twice for his heroism. After World War I Knobelsdorff commanded a regiment that in 1935 was part of the Polish campaign that touched off World War II. During the beginning of the war he commanded divisions in the fight for France and Belgium.

Figure 2 General der Panzertruppen Otto von Knobeldorff

Figure 2: General der Panzertruppen Otto von Knobeldorff

He distinguished himself on the Russian front, receiving the Knights Cross for his division’s actions in 1942. Later that year he was promoted to General and commanded a Panzer Corp. He was decorated again for his leadership of that Corp during the battle of Kursk with a Knights Cross with Oakleaves, a very high honor in the German Army. For his battle command at Nikopol Bridgehead he was awarded yet another Knights Cross, this one with Oakleaves and Sword. This made him one of the highest decorated German commanders of the war. By the time he was put in command of the defenses around Lorraine in which Fortress Metz was a part of  there was a bit of trepidation due to his health, which would play a role in the battle’s outcome due to the fact that Knoblsdorff  during the height of this battle had to take a brief leave due to his health issues. (8)

Taking the city of Metz would be a challenging task for the allies. There were a series of natural as well as man-made obstacles these included, the Moselle River, a multitude of forts and a plethora of pill boxes. Patton’s army made attempt after attempt to cross the Moselle River but these fortresses rained heavy artillery fire down upon them making it a daunting task. These forts and pill boxes dated back to the 19th century making them almost a natural part of the landscape this made the structures much harder to detect and therefore defeat. (9) another reason the pill boxes created a challenge was, because of their small size. Two German soldiers could easily hide inside and shot a .50 caliber machine gun at the Allies and have little chance of being hit by small arms fire. The Combination of these natural and unnatural defenses had made the city of Metz  a formidable opponent for invaders for more then 1500 years since it is placed superbly for defense on the east bank of the Moselle River. As well as being surrounded by barbed wire and earth fortifications that had been built around the city. Its best defense however, was the fact it was surrounded by hills that were turned into dominating underground forts composed of passageways and well dug in steel and concrete doors placed in a fashion that not only concealed them but protected them from artillery fire.

Figure 3 German Pill Box

Figure 3: German Pill Box

These doors were also impervious to air attack since they were defended by earthen banks. (10) It would take multiple operations in order to take the city of Metz. A lull in the action took place during most of October before General Eisenhower authorized Operation Madison with the objective of taking Metz. He gave the task to General Patton and his 3rd Army.

Figure 4: Map of Fortress Metz and Surrounding Forts

Figure 4: Map of Fortress Metz and Surrounding Forts (Click to enlarge)

On November 8, 1944, General Eddy’s XII Corps began Operation Madison. Eddy had objections to starting the operation due to the muddy terrain as a result of heavy rains and flooding. He asked Patton to delay the attack to which Patton responded “Attack or name your replacement.” (10) At 0600 the attack on German forces that were blocking the way to Metz began with an artillery barrage that took the Germans by surprise. The attack was well camouflaged since the foggy weather the previous night allowed the 3rd Army to move the battery into position without being noticed. This led to a disruption in the forward German defenses. At the American right flank, Hill 310 was being defended by a regiment from the 361 Volksgreadier-Divison, leading to a three day intense engagement. This action created a breach between two German Volksgrenadier Divisions that was exploited by General Eddy. Eddy used the 4th Armored Division to try and seize the Morhange road junction, which was a vital peace of real-estate since it would help move men and material towards their ultimate objective. This move by the 4th Armored Division was such a threat  it forced the German Commander Knobeldorff to divert his reserve in defense and to equalize the front. (11) By the evening of the 8th the Allies held ten bridges over the Seille River. However, the ridge was still held by two German infantry units, the 48th and most of SS-Panzergrenadier 37th. The American 80th division was given the task of taking this ridge. (12) This push began early in the morning of the 9th and taxed the German defenses of the Delme Ridge forcing Gen. Knobelsdorff to transfer a division in relief. This only delayed the American advance and did not stop it.

Figure 5 Map Denoting The Battle Lines Of Operation Madison

Figure 5: Map Denoting The Battle Lines Of Operation Madison

Later in the day on the 9th, XX Corp got into the fray after the 95th division staged an attack that was intended to divert the Germans away from an incursion made by the 90th division at the most prominent river crossing. The weather played a factor in this action as well as the Germans were again caught off guard by the advance and the minefield they had put in place was rendered obsolete by a flood that turned the ground into a small body of water. The allies overran the German positions and advanced. Almost simultaneously the 358th infantry advanced to Fort Koenigsmacker and split up leaving companies A and B to deal with this nemesis. As it happened, the 358th was accompanied by a regiment of engineers who helped in the attack of the Fort by using improvised explosives to take down the observation domes. (13) By night fall the Americans had control of the western side of the fort but the fight was not over. It took till November 11th to gain total control of Fort Koenigsmacker. With this control the allies were on the precipice of the Fortress City Of Metz.

On November 18, 1944 the siege of the Fortress City Of  Metz commenced. This attack was reliant upon taking and securing the rest of the bridges over the Moselle River. This operation was made extremely difficult due to the destruction of almost all the bridges by German forces. The 95th infantry and 379th Infantry regiment moved in from the west but left two companies behind to deal with German resistance. They succeed in cutting off Fort Jeanne d’Arc and reached their bridge objective by the evening only to discover its destruction. A boat crossing was considered but determined not plausible so they were ordered to hold Ft Jeanne D’Arc and stop any further German resistance. (15) At this time the 378th infantry was in trouble as well, they had their full attention on engaging Fort Plappeville. This fort was in a good location for the Germans due to the fact that they could share supplies with a neighboring fort. Together both forts totaled 650 men, but that withstanding the Germans where still running low on food and ammunition. However, they were willing to hold these two forts till the last man due to their strategic position overlooking the Moselle and their ability to rain artillery fire down on all those who dare cross. If these forts were properly supplied they would have been able to greatly slow the American advance. US troops began to enter the city later that day with little resistance due to a lack of communication between the Germans as a result of the blown bridges disrupting their lines of communication. By the end of the day on the 18th the German high command made a decision to concentrate all their forces around their command post on the Isle of Chambiere as to hold this post to the last.

Figure 6 Envelopment Of Metz From The South 8-19 November 1944

Figure 6: Envelopment Of Metz From The South 8-19 November 1944 (Click to enlarge)

The next day, November 19th, The 377th American Infantry unit was returning to the area of Fort Bellacroix when they discovered one of the bridges had not been blown. They quickly overtook the small German opposition force and captured the important real estate. (16) A company with tank support crossed the bridge under heavy sniper fire and faced approximately 700 men. The German forces were not organized though and their commander surrendered. The US forces now had control of most of the city. An attempted was made by the Germans to air drop supplies to the desperate men in Fort Plappeville but failed, adding to their problems. By the evening of the 19th The American forces were well into Metz, even destroying a Gestapo Headquarters. All means of German retreat were sealed by the evening and the capture of the Fortress  City Of Metz was assured. (17)
On November 20th to the 21st American forces took part in bloody and chaotic house to house fighting. as the German army was desperate to hold the city and fought with tenacity. William Lake, a riflemen in the 377th infantry, stated “They fought like tigers that’s the something we would have done had it been reversed.” (18)

Figure 7 House To House Fighting In The City Of Metz

Figure 7: House To House Fighting In The City Of Metz

He also described just how rough the fight was when he said “These mortars walked down the street, they don’t come as a barrage, they come BOOM BOOM BOOM!! It turned out Sgt. Garsline lost one of his legs….and Schagle got hit in the stomach…During the same barrage one of the fragments went down the hallway where our squad was and hit another man in our squad in the spine.” (19) This hard fighting paid off when on the morning of the 21st German General Kittel was captured after he was wounded acting as an infantrymen. By the 22nd of November the resistance in the city had ended and the Allies held Metz. (20) Even though the battle for the city was over, the fight for the forts on the outskirts of town raged on into December.

The capture of Metz led the Allies to have a clear road across the Rhine and into Germany.  It was a long and hard fought struggle and resulted as a loss for the Germans. This victory did however delay the Allied advance, allowing the Germans to retreat and save their army for a later engagement, the Battle of the Bulge.

Figure 8 Capture of Ft Jeanne d'Arc December 13, 1944

Figure 8: Capture of Ft Jeanne d’Arc December 13, 1944

One can look at this battle to see the true character of the greatest generation in action. These brave men faced death every day but had a job to do and did it with the honor and courage that only an American would posess. The American men who fought in Metz would never forget the carnage and violence of that fight. A captured German Officer spoke of these men saying “You men must be made of Iron to take this city,”  . (21) These words most certainly sum up the character of the valiant 3rd Army soldiers who risked it all for the greater good.

 

 

 

 

 

Notes;
1) Province, Charles M.: The Unknown Patton (New York: Bonanza Books., 1983) Pg., 3
2) Ibid., Pg. 3
3) Ibid., Pg. 14
4) Ibid., Pg.16
5) Province, Charles M.: George S. Patton, Jr. U.S. Army 02605 1885-1945 (Oregon City, OR: The Patton Society), Retrieved From Http:// http://www.pattonhq.com/pattonbio.pdf, Pg. 2

6) Ibid., Pg. 2

7) America In WWII The Magazine of a People at War 1941-1945, “Patton’s ghost army” : Brian, John Murphy (310 Publishing 2009) Retrieved from http:// http://www.americainwwii.com/stories/pattonsghostarmy.html

8) Zaloga, Steven J.: Metz 1944 “Patton’s fortified nemesis” (Oxford, England: Osprey Publishing., 2012) Pg.’s 15-16

9) Ibid., Pg. 4

10) Ibid., Pg. 53

11) Wallace, Gen. Brenton G.: Patton & Third Army ( Mechanicsburg, Pa: Military Service Publishing, 1946) Pg. 117

12) Ibid., Pg. 57

13) Ibid., Pg. 57

14) Ibid., Pg. 60

15) Combat Studies Institute Battle Book 13-A: The Battle Of Metz (Ft. Leavenworth, TX: CSI Publishing, 1984) Pg. 55-56

16) Ibid., Pg.’s. 59-60

17) Ibid., 61

18) Vogt, Tobias O.: The Iron Men Of Metz Reflections Of Combat With The 95th Infantry Division( San Diego, CA: Aventine Press, 2005) Pg. 106

19) Ibid., Pg. 106

20) Combat Studies Institute., 64

21) Vogt., 113

 

Figures;
1) Retrieved From: http://www.biographyonline.net/military/general-patton.html
2) Retrieved From: http://imageshack.us/f/458/0193mz.jpg/
3) Retrieved From: Zaloga, Steven J. Metz 1944 “Patton’s fortified nemesis” (Oxford, England: Osprey Publishing., 2012) Pg. ,35

4) Retrieved From: http://www.ww2museums.com/article/27295/German-Pillbox-Bl%26%23299%3Bdene%26%238206%3B.html

5) Retrieved From: http://www.ibiblio.org/hyperwar/AAF/III/AAF-III-17.html
6) Retrieved From: http://www.ibiblio.org/hyperwar/USA/USA-E-Lorraine/maps/USA-E-Lorraine-XXXII.jpg

7) Retrieved From: http://www.ibiblio.org/hyperwar/USA/USA-E-Lorraine/img/USA-E-Lorraine-p445b.jpg

8) Retrieved From: Zologa, Pg. 76

 

 

 

3 thoughts on “Fortress Metz: The 3rd Army’s Toughest Battle

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