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7-19 July 1944 - St Lô

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Maj. General Charles H. Gerhardt [29th Division] planned his attack for 11 July with the main effort on the left, in close proximity to the corps boundary and the assault of the 2nd Division on Hill 192. Here, the 116th Regiment was to attack on a narrow front, in column of battalions, straight south; then turn west toward St-Lô and the initial objective areas. These lay on two ridges that run west from the hill mass of Hill 192 almost to the Vire. The axis of attack during the next phase of the action was to follow the line of these ridges, roughly that of the Bayeux-St-Lô highway. The ultimate objective was the high ground just east and southeast of the city; General Gerhardt wished to avoid costly street fighting and believed the Germans would be forced to evacuate, since the American troops threatened to encircle St-Lô and held all the surrounding hills. On the right, the 115th Regiment [29th Division] was assigned the area of la Luzerne as objective; its action would protect the flank of the main effort and threaten the enemy with loss of the high ground north of St-Lô. Initially in division reserve, the 175th Regiment was held ready to exploit successes achieved in either of the regimental attack zones. Five battalions of artillery, two light and three medium, were to give support for the attack, beginning with a concentrated preparation between H-20 minutes and the jump-off at 0600.

The 29th Division had already had much and bitter experience of the difficulties of hedgerow fighting and to meet them, like other units, spent a great deal of time and effort in planning and training for the big attack. Under the direct supervision of Brig. General Norman D. Cota, Assistant Division Commander [29th Division], the infantry, tank, and engineer elements of the division rehearsed (in fields near Couvains) a tactical procedure for reducing the effectiveness of hedgerow defences. Particular attention was paid to the necessity of training infantrymen to cross the open centers of hedge-bordered fields, rather than moving along axial hedgerows. This method of maneuver aimed at avoiding enfilade fire along the axials; in the past squads and platoons had been too often pinned down by German automatic weapons that were usually set up at field corners.

Each battalion of the 116th Regiment [29th Division]went into the attack with an attached company of engineers from the 121st Engineer Combat Battalion [29th Division]. The 2d Battalion (Maj. Sidney V. Bingham, Jr.) of the 116th [Regiment, 29th Division] was to lead off the advance, hitting along the axis of the Couvains-la Calvaire road, skirting the division boundary, and bypassing strongly organized enemy positions at St-André-de-l'Epine. The 2d Battalion would start on a two-company front (E and F Companies); each assault platoon in these companies was teamed with a platoon of medium tanks from the 747th Tank Battalion. The plan for the opening phase involved operating in small teams, each with a comparatively broad front: one infantry squad and one tank per field, and a squad of engineers to each infantry platoon.

Coordination of infantry-tank-engineer teams, working in these small groups, had been carefully rehearsed. The tanks were expected to give great assistance, by their fire power, in dealing with hedgerow strong points, but there was always the problem of getting them through the embankments fast enough to maintain their support through the endless series of fields. Movement along the road was prohibited by German antitank defences. To get the armor through hedgerows, new devices and methods were being tried out. One was to equip the tank with iron prongs welded to the final drive housing. These prongs could--and did--rip holes right through the upper part of small embankments, but the prongs might be bent and disabled by much heavy work of this sort. They had still another use: that of making holes for placing demolitions. The engineers in the assault teams carried explosive charges of TNT loaded in discarded canisters of 105-mm shells. In the tactics rehearsed, the infantry would seize hedgerow fronting the axis of attack; a tank would then lumber forward toward a place where the engineers desired to make the gap. Driving into the hedgerow, the tank would force the two prongs into the earth, and at the same time deliver a blast of fire from its automatic weapons on the field and hedgerow ahead. When the prongs were withdrawn from the bank, two waiting engineers would rush forward, fix the prepared charges in the holes, make the necessary primacord connections, and light the fuse. Additional TNT charges were carried close behind the assault teams on "weasels" (M-29's). Obviously the engineers' task was dangerous; they were so heavily involved in the task of carrying explosives that they could not engage in individual combat and must rely on the fire power of tanks and infantry for protection.

The test of plans and training came in the attack of 11 July. In the first few hours, things moved very slowly, and the situation looked unpromising. The effects of the heavy concentrations of artillery, preceding the jump-off, seemed to be minimized by the hedgerows; at any rate, the 2nd Battalion encountered immediate and determined resistance from the prepared enemy positions along the first hedgerows. Mine fields and booby traps were encountered, and flanking fires came from St-André-de-l'Epine and the Martinville Ridge. The attacking troops experienced the old difficulty of spotting the exact source of enemy fire. It was only after severe fighting that the 2d Battalion got past the first main obstacle, a sunken road heavily protected with antipersonnel mines. But once beyond this, the assault troops began to find grim evidence of the work of American artillery in the large number of enemy dead and wounded scattered through the next few fields. This, as an observer noted, was an unusual sight, because the Germans ordinarily evacuated casualties before they were reached by our advance.

The 2nd Battalion kept the pressure on. By 1100, with heavy support from artillery and effective use of the methods for getting tanks through embankments, the battalion was six hedgerows beyond the LD. The engineers of Company B, 121st Engineer Combat Battalion [29th Division] were helping the infantry through mines, and the 4.2 mortars of the 92d Chemical Mortar Battalion were holding down the German fire from the Martinville Ridge (Hill 147). A German self-propelled gun on the north-south highway had lost a duel with our tanks and was left behind, wrecked.

Only 600 yards had been gained, but enemy resistance suddenly eased, then cracked. Major Bingham's troops now made rapid progress until they reached the junction of the ridge road leading west toward Martinville. Here the battalion wheeled right, on a 90-degree change in direction of attack. The enemy was still hanging on, southward, and the exposure of the battalion's left flank during the turn made for rough going. Nevertheless, the troops were able to push forward astride the ridge road.

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