36th Division in World War II


The cracking of the German Moselle River line was a great victory. The Germans had promised that they would hold out all winter behind this water barrier, and while the 36th Division fought into Plombieres and towards Remiremont, they brought up reinforcements and sent for more. The Germans had a lot of troops along the Moselle River: units salvaged from Montelimar, special defense battalions sent from Third Reich to man its outer defenses, crack Luftwaffe ground forces employed as infantry. They had good positions along the high ground east of the river, spread out through heavy woods. All the Germans had to do was pull back to these prepared positions, then wait for the Texans to force a passage. The fords had been zeroed in with machine guns and mortars, the bridges had been long since prepared for demolition, and sizeable mine fields had been laid. Even the weather was with the Germans; they must have felt pretty certain that here was where the "Blue Devils"—as they had named the TPatchers in Italy—got theirs. The fall rains had already begun. In a fortnight, there would be ravaging floods across the entire valley. The river was rising steadily.

As at Montelimar, the Division had outstripped its supporting trains, and when the Moselle River was reached, there was no bridging material available. The swiftness of the operation had left all the heavy equipment a good distance behind. But, nevertheless, waiting for bridging material would do no good. Soon the river would be unbridgeable. Meanwhile, the enemy was growing stronger.

To strike while the iron was still in the fire, General Dahlquist called on dynamic tankman, Col. Clyde Steele, of Cincinnati, Ohio, then commanding the 141st Regimental Combat Team. No one laid elaborate plans. Colonel Steele was told to cross the river with the utmost possible speed, somewhere north of Remiremont.

The same day, September 20, saw the regiment in an assembly area near the tiny village of RaonauxBoix. The officers were in the small home of the mayor, seventyyearold Monsieur Gribelin, trying to plan a way of moving through the dense, trackless forest between the town and the river. The peasants stayed away from it, but one man did know a way. Old Gribelin volunteered to lead the troops directly to the river.

There was some hesitancy about asking the old man with the scraggly white moustache to go out with the reconnaissance parties, but Gribelin was an old campaigner. "I am a retired naval officer," he said, bristling at the suggestion that someone else be found to lead the troops. "I shall lead you."

In the late afternoon he led the advance elements to a vantage point, overlooking the enemy defenses.

Again that night, an inky night, the old mayor of Raon struck out through the woods at the head of a column, wearing out men a third his age with his long, tireless strides. His leadership was uncanny in that black forest, where there were no landmarks, and where the aging growths had obliterated the trails. As the men filed forward, a heavy ground mist settled. Men tripped on roots, fell and cursed. Men blundered against trees, stumbled into thickets, but the mayor of Raon led the column straight across the hills and through the forest to a bend in the river opposite Eloyes.

There had been originally some talk of crossing the river at this point, but the veterans who remembered the fruitless and bloody attempts to cross the Cassino-skirting Rapido River noted a great similarity between the deadly Sbend in the Italian river and the curving of the Moselle. Lt. Col. James Critchfield led his Second Battalion into position for a feint there, and as the battalion opened fire on the enemy, the opinion of the veterans was justified. The enemy caught the Second Battalion with a devastating counterfire from excellent position.

As the Second Battalion maneuvered into position for its feint, the First and Third Battalions trekked across the forest in another area, to a point on the river midway between Eloyes and Remiremont. In a column of battalions, they met the river and skirted it to reach the selected ford. The First Battalion of Lt. Col. Victor Sinclair, San Antonio, Tex., passed a secondary crossing point, going towards another ford which had been designated as the attacking crossing. As it did so, the commander of the Third Battalion led one platoon of Item Company and the company commander across the river, trying to force a passage.

A semicircle of eight heavy machine guns had been centered on the shallows there. Sitting on wooden benches, in strong, concealed positions, the enemy machine gunners tore the platoon to shreds with a murderous crossfire. There were four survivors.

Pfc. Stuart Cottman, Baltimore, Md., sitting on a rock with his head in his hands, soaked to the waist, told the story: "We got across, all right," said Cottman. "Four of us were detailed to guard at the river bank. The others went over a rise into a little hollow. Then all hell broke loose, with machine guns firing into the hollow. I waited a while ... nobody came back and the Germans started to come down the flanks."

The First Battalion reached the chosen ford. An engineer, Cpl. Walter Lindsay, stripped off his combat pack and jacket, fought his way across the swollen, swirling river with a halfinch rope. A five man patrol, led by Pfc. Bernard Betz, nineteenyearold rifleman from August, Mich., made the crossing. Then the rest of the men began the difficult passage. Their clothes slung on their backs, bandoliers lashed on packs, they clung to the rope and battled the stiff current to the other side. Mortarmen and machine gunners, weighted down by their weapons and extra ammunition, clung to the rope and stumbled along the rocky, treacherous bottom. One was swept under, dragged down by his heavy burden. Man by man, with every minute counting an hour, the battalion, forced its way against the river, across on the rope. Ammunition carriers, loaded and soaking wet, made their way across, returned for more ammunition, half-drowned, and fought back. Men lost their packs and clothes, but they got across with their cartridges and shells and their guns.

A fullyalerted enemy turned his mortars on the crossing. Snipers from the hills above it splattered the water, hit the rope. The lifeline was almost severed. Another was hastily slung in a more sheltered place, but to get to it the men had to race fifty yards across open marsh with snipers' bullets plowing the ground beside them.

The Third Battalion came upstream after a quick reorganization. It too, crossed on the rope.

Originally a steep bank and a few hundred yards of exposed slope, the bridgehead expanded to the main road, right and left along it.

The Second Battalion, once the others had got across, seized that part of Eloyes west of the river. It then joined the 143rd Regimental Combat Team and crossed the river across a treadway bridge which the engineers had immediately put into position so that supply jeeps and heavy supporting weapons could be put across.

The 143rd went to the left towards the center of resistance at Eloyes, while the 141st went to the right, to try and trap the German garrison fiercely resisting the 142nd Infantry Regiment on the outskirts of Remiremont.

Ninety tough Nazis were between the 141st and Remiremont, veterans of the Russian front, wellarmed with automatic weapons, who had been attending a sniper school until the 36th Division had broken it up. They were out to show what they had learned, and they were good battlers. Ninety of them, led by a wily master sergeant, spread out all over the area and needled the advancing First Battalion. There was no line to fight along, just a dragnet across the hills, which broke up into swarming little pockets every time a German was flushed.

To the north, the 143rd took the high ground overlooking Eloyes. Resistance slackened, and on the 23rd of September, the town had been occupied and roadblocks established to the north and northeast.

All three battalions were committed in the fight to take Remiremont as the 142nd struggled against heavy resistance on the west bank of the Moselle. Until the 141st made its way into position behind the bridge and road leading out of Remiremont, the Germans continued to wage a punishing war; then the enemy broke contact, blew the only bridge left standing, and withdrew across the Moselle. The 142nd entered Remiremont, and the entire weight of the Division was brought into play along the stillnarrow bridgehead.

But even with the entire Division centered on the crossings, the situation was precarious. Only one bridge had been constructed, across the lowlands midway between Eloyes and Remiremont. Heavy rains threatened this bridge and all but washed out the improvised approaches to it. It was continually under fire. The bridgehead was less than a mile deep, and progress was slow against stubborn resistance in the heavilywooded, hilly, roadless terrain. The cold, rainy weather caught the troops without winter equipment. The situation was not favorable.

There were no available reinforcements. The Third Division, in the south, was heavily engaged and unable to move. Advancing towards Epinal, the 45th Division had committed its full strength.

It was up to the 36th, and the Division reacted with vigor, shifting its drive to the north toward Docelles and Bruyerres, deployed on a front twentyfive kilometers wide and eleven kilometers deep. There was no left flank. It was completely open, but the change in the direction of the attack in some measure protected it, forcing, as it did, the Germans to move in from the north and northeast into the front and strong flank of the line. To prevent the enemy from discovering the nature of the 36th Division situation, General Dahlquist did a difficult thing; he pressed his tired regiments to the attack.

The 141st drove overland into Sainte Ame.

The 142nd seized the high ground south of Tendon and maintained contact with the Third Division.

The 143rd captured Docelles.

Then, on September 25, the Germans counterattacked. For three days they beat furiously against the 36th Division line, but the aggressive moves of the 36th had frustrated them. The Texans had penetrated too deeply to be shaken from their bridgehead. Through their speed and durability, their performance under hardships, despite heavy casualties and limited reserves, they had cracked the line behind which the Germans had promised to rest all winter and led the Seventh Army to the Vosges Mountains.


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