Chapter 17: Combat Engineers in the Breakout and Pursuit
While engineers at Cherbourg were beginning the task of port reconstruction late in June, others on the plain south of Carentan were preparing to help First Army combat troops advance to a point from which they could break through German defenses and sweep south toward Brittany and east toward the Seine. The advance was to follow three main roads, one leading through La Haye-du-Puits down the west coast of the Cotentin to Coutances, another from Carentan southwest to Périers, and the third south from Carentan to St. Lô. The VIII Corps, which had become operational on the Continent on 15 June, was to advance on Coutances; VII Corps, which had swiftly turned around after the capture of Cherbourg, was to head for Périers; and part of XIX Corps was to drive toward St. Lô. The VIII Corps, on the west or right flank, was to lead off on 3 July.1
At the neck of the Cotentin peninsula the Germans had a powerful ally in the terrain. About half of the Carentan plain was so marshy that passage by foot was difficult, by vehicle impossible. The other half consisted of small fields separated by hedgerows—thick parapets of dirt from three to twelve feet high topped by hedges of trees and vines that grew as tall as fifteen feet in some places. Because of the height of the hedgerows, the wagon trails that wound among them seemed to be sunken roads. The advantage of such terrain to the defender was obvious. Providing concealment for riflemen, machine gunners, and artillery, hedgerows were, in effect, miniature fortified lines. Combat forces required close engineer support to open gaps through which tanks could advance, delivering machine-gun and point-blank artillery fire. Ordnance units developed a hedgerow cutter by welding prongs to the front of a tank, enabling it to slice through hedgerows without exposing its vulnerable underbelly and thus to cut an opening through which other tanks could follow. Where hedgerows were so thick that cutter tanks could not break through, the engineers had first to blow a breach with a heavy satchel charge.
The Road to Coutances
In the VIII Corps sector the Germans had another terrain advantage, a horseshoe-shaped ring of hills around La Haye-du-Puits. So commanding were these hills that from their crests the Germans could watch the shipping off the Allied beaches. Enemy artillery denied to VIII Corps the main roads leading to the town, forcing the corps’ units to use lateral one-way roads and heavily mined lanes. Engineers supporting the three divisions moving out abreast in a drenching rain early on 3 July had to clear the narrow roads of mines and then to widen them for two-way traffic.2
Each division, the 82nd Airborne in the center, the 79th on the west (right), and the 90th on the east (left), had its organic engineer combat battalion. In addition, on 17 June First Army attached to VIII Corps the 1110th Engineer Combat Group, which had supported VII Corps during the advance to Cherbourg. The group commander placed the 300th Engineer Combat Battalion behind the 79th Division, the 148th behind the 82nd Airborne Division, and the 207th behind the 90th Division. The group also had a light ponton company and a treadway bridge company, which, split into platoons, could provide support to the divisions as needed.
The VIII Corps advanced to La Haye-du-Puits in a flying wedge formation with the 82nd Airborne Division at the apex. Squads of the division’s 307th Airborne Engineer Battalion accompanied battalions of parachute infantry, clearing roads of mines to enable supporting tanks to advance. The mine detectors and tanks drew enemy small-arms and artillery fire that caused heavy losses among mine detector crews. Nevertheless, the crack airborne engineers who had dropped with the 82nd Airborne Division in the early hours of D-day boasted that “the enemy pioneer obstacles had no effect on the tactical situation. The whole thing resolved itself into a sort of game between the pioneers and the engineers.”3
The 82nd Airborne Division met the weakest resistance during the VIII Corps’ advance, encountering mainly Poles and Georgians whose morale was poor and who seemed happy to surrender. From these prisoners the engineers gained considerable information about the Germans’ use of land mines. They employed the flat, antitank Teller mine with considerable ingenuity—sometimes burying them three deep in such a way that the two bottom mines were not visible even when the top one was removed; sometimes equipping the mines with a second fuse at the bottom, timed to go off after the demolitionists had unscrewed the top fuse; sometimes burying mines upside down with a push igniter that converted the Teller into an antipersonnel mine. The familiar antipersonnel S-mine was now equipped with a wire that would set off a block of TNT when the mine was lifted. The engineers also discovered a new type of antipersonnel mine called a “Mustard Pot,” which consisted of a 50- mm. mortar shell equipped with a chemical igniter.4
By daybreak on 7 July the 82nd Airborne Division had gained its objective, and its troops, longest in combat on the Continent, were “lying in rain-filled slit trenches” beginning “to sweat out the much-rumored trip to England.”5 On the right the 79th held the heights west of La Haye-du-Puits but had been unable to take the town. This division, which had participated in the conquest of Cherbourg, had encountered enemy troops of better caliber, including a battalion of Waffen SS troops. Ingenious mines and booby traps also slowed the 79th. When an infantry battalion attempted a reconnaissance-in-force of La Haye-du-Puits during the afternoon of 7 July, the troops ran into “mine-studded fields strung with checkerboard patterns of piano wire about a foot off the ground and the booby traps set to blow off a leg any time you tripped the strands.”6
On the east, or left, flank of the V-shaped advance, the inexperienced 90th Division had hard going from the moment it jumped off on 3 July. By 7 July the division’s foothold on a ridge east of La Haye-du-Puits known as Mont Castre was so precarious that it had to call on its organic engineer combat battalion, the 315th, for combat support at the highest point of the ridge line, Hill 122. Companies A, B. and C, which had been doing mine sweeping, road clearing, and other engineer tasks in support of the 357th, 358th, and 359th Regimental Combat Teams, were alerted shortly before midnight on the seventh to move out as infantry, attached to the 358th Regimental Combat Team. Late in June the battalion had trained in firing bazookas and heavy machine guns, and on 3 July it had contributed a bazooka team to help rescue men trapped under German self-propelled artillery fire. Moreover, the battalion had a mortar section made up of one squad from each line company, each squad being armed with two captured German 80-mm. trench mortars.
The mortar section occupied a position near the base of Hill 122, protecting the right flank of the 90th Division. The lettered companies went into action on the hill at dawn on 8 July. Battalion headquarters and the battalion aid station set up in a gravel quarry behind the lines. Between 8 and 11 July the battalion sustained ten casualties from enemy artillery, which reached even headquarters company’s position, normally out of range, destroying the kitchen truck.
After 11 July the situation on VIII Corps’ front began to improve. That day the 358th Infantry was able to descend the south slope of Hill 122, and the division commander returned the engineers to their normal tasks. By noon on 9 July, the 79th Division had taken La Haye-du-Puits and turned it over to the 8th Division, which had come forward to replace the 82nd Airborne Division, soon to return to England. Five days later the 8th and 79th Divisions were occupying the north bank of the Ay River and reconnoitering for crossing sites to Lessay, still in German hands. The 90th Division was at the Seves River near Périers.
Between the 3 July jump-off and 14 July, VIII Corps had advanced only
some seven miles through the hedgerows—about one-third of the distance to Coutances—but had suffered more than 10,000 casualties. Lt. Gen. Omar N. Bradley, commanding First Army, changed tactics, planning the breakout not across the Coutances –St. Lô road, Route 172, but across Route 800 from Lessay through Périers to St. Lô. The operation, called COBRA, was to begin on 21 July. In the interim, the VIII Corps’ divisional combat engineer teams provided demonstrations to infantry troops on clearing mines and blowing hedgerows and benefited from a general program of reequipping and rehabilitation. The 1110th Engineer Combat Group provided hot showers for the badly crippled 90th Division.
The Road to Périers
There was little room to maneuver. For the attack south from Carentan to Périers, VII Corps had the 4th and 9th Infantry Divisions, which had participated in the capture of Cherbourg, and the 83rd Division, which had arrived in Normandy late in June to relieve the 101st Airborne Division. To reach its objective the corps had to pass down a corridor resembling an isthmus two to three miles wide, with marshes on either side. This restricted the advance at the outset to two divisions; the 83rd was to lead off on 4 July, followed by the 4th. The 9th was not to be committed until the leading divisions had taken objectives on the Périers –St. Lô road.
In addition to their organic engineer combat battalions, the divisions had the support of two engineer combat groups: the 1106th, with engineer combat battalions behind the 83rd and 9th Divisions, and the 1120th, supporting the 4th Division and corps troops. The commander of the 1106th Engineer Combat Group, Col. Thomas DeF. Rogers, first had to undo previous engineer efforts drain the Douve marshes that had been flooded to protect VII Corps’ rear on its march to Cherbourg and clear a huge minefield that American forces had planted below Carentan to protect the 101st Airborne Division from a frontal attack. Two companies of the 238th Engineer Combat Battalion had the task of lifting the mines. Although enemy artillery and small-arms fire slowed the work, they removed 12,000 mines in two days. Meanwhile, battalions from both engineer combat groups drained marshes and maintained and guarded bridges over the Douve River.
When the 83rd Division jumped off on the Fourth of July behind a ten-minute artillery preparation—“plenty of fireworks, but of a deadlier kind than those back home”—its 308th Engineer Combat Battalion, backed by the 238th Engineer Combat Battalion, built hasty bridges, maintained defensive positions at night, and blew hedgerows so that tanks could advance.7 The Germans, protected behind the hedgerows, reacted strongly with artillery and machine-gun fire. The advance down the narrow isthmus went so slowly that after two days the VII Corps commander turned the 83rd Division east toward the Taute River to make room to commit the 4th Division. That division, with engineer support from its organic 4th Engineer Combat Battalion and the 1102nd Combat Group’s 298th Engineer
Combat Battalion, also had hard going. Six miles northeast of Périers the narrow neck of high land descended into a rain-swollen bog. Leading elements reached this point on 8 July. A week later, still four miles south of Périers, the 4th Division halted and went into reserve. In ten days of fighting it had sustained 2,500 casualties.
Thus, by mid-July the advance to Périers along the narrow isthmus from Carentan had come to a standstill. First Army reorganized the whole front. The 83rd Division (less its 330th Infantry), badly crippled by 5,000 casualties in twelve days of combat and stalled at the western bank of the Taute River, began to relieve the 4th Division and passed to the control of VIII Corps. The main VII Corps effort then focused on high ground near St. Lô.
The Road to St. Lô
Two infantry divisions were to spearhead the XIX Corps’ advance toward St. Lô, the 30th down the west bank of the Vire and the 29th down the east bank. The 30th Division deployed in an arc extending from the north bank of the Vire and Taute Canal (which ran southeast from a point near Carentan on the Taute to a point just north of Airel on the Vire) to the east bank of the Vire near Airel. The division had to put its 120th Infantry across the canal and its 117th and 119th over the river. After the troops assembled near St. Jean-de-Daye, a crossroads village about three miles from the canal and from the river, they had to push through hedgerow country for nine miles to reach their objective on the highway leading west from St. Lô to Coutances. The 29th Division would presumably have easier going down the high ground east of the Vire to its objective, St. Lô. Therefore, the 30th Division was to lead off on 7 July, with the 29th not committed until the 30th was about halfway to its objective. A third XIX Corps infantry division, the 35th, was then arriving in France and was to be committed either east or west of the Vire as circumstances dictated. The XIX Corps also might receive an armored division for use west of the Vire, but this was not certain when the 30th Division jumped off on 7 July.
The 30th Division had the support of its organic 105th Engineer Combat Battalion, backed by the 1104th Engineer Combat Group, which supplied the 247th Engineer Combat Battalion at the Vire River crossing and the 246th Battalion at the canal. Both were to have the aid of platoons of the group’s 992nd Engineer Treadway Bridge Company and 503rd Engineer Light Ponton Company. Since mid-June the 105th Battalion’s companies had been reconnoitering for crossing sites, readying equipment, and making practice crossings near the mouth of the Vire River.
The Vire Crossings at Airel
Before dawn on 7 July, in drizzling rain and fog, Company A of the 105th Engineer Combat Battalion met the 117th Infantry at the site selected for the first Vire River crossing, just north of Airel. There the river was about sixty feet wide and from nine to fourteen feet deep. Because the river had steep banks, at least six feet high, the engineers and infantrymen carried scaling ladders with grappling hooks in addition to twelve-man rubber assault boats. To the comforting sound of a heavy
artillery preparation that began at 0330, the first wave of thirty-two boats got under way at 0420, the men of the weapons platoons dumping their mortars and machine guns into the boats and swimming alongside to avoid swamping the frail craft. The 117th Infantry was experienced, having demonstrated river crossing at the Infantry School, Fort Benning, Georgia. In ten minutes the men were scrambling up the scaling ladders on the far shore.
Enemy artillery opened up just as the engineer boats were returning to the near shore, and the second and third boat waves crossed under heavy shelling. The worst victim of German fire was a platoon of Company B, 105th Engineer Combat Battalion, which was attempting to build a footbridge. The platoon had six bays in the water when direct artillery hits destroyed them. Another concentration killed four men and wounded four more. Still under fire, the engineers had scarcely finished a second bridge when enemy artillery tore the span loose from its moorings and wounded several men. Some of the engineers swam into the river and secured the bridge, and by 0530 the troops had a footbridge. The engineer platoon, which had lost half its men, was awarded a Distinguished Unit Citation for its heroic action.8
While the infantry was streaming over the footbridge, combat engineers began getting the division’s vehicles and tanks across the Vire. A seven-arch stone bridge spanned the river at Airel, but it was badly cratered. The 247th Engineer Combat Battalion began work on the bridge at 0700, finding on it a truck that a German shell had hit a few days before. At the steering wheel was the body of the driver and behind the truck two other bodies. Removing the corpses and winching away the truck, the engineers first cleared mines from the bridge and then set to work, under concentrated artillery fire, to cover holes and gaps. With the aid of a platoon of the 992nd Bridge Company, the 247th brought up a 108-foot floating treadway bridge on Brockway trucks, which had hydraulic booms to lift the heavy steel treadways and emplace them over the craters. In the process both engineer units suffered heavy casualties, mostly burns from white phosphorus shells, but the stone bridge was usable by 0900. After a bulldozer had passed over the treadway and cleared Airel of rubble, and after a battalion of the 119th Infantry had crossed to protect the bridgehead, tanks and tank destroyers began rolling over the bridge around noon.9
By this time the engineers had constructed additional vehicular bridges near Airel. One was an 84-foot infantry support bridge, which the 503rd Engineer Light Ponton Company began at 0730 and finished in less than an hour. The other was a floating tread-way just south of the stone bridge, built under heavy artillery and machine-gun fire that cost Company A of the 247th Engineer Combat Battalion four men killed and seven wounded. The bridge was in by 1130. Thus, at noon on 7 July, the 30th Division had the three bridges initially planned, the stone bridge and the treadway for one-way
traffic east and the infantry support bridge for casualties and traffic moving west.
Before the day was over events placed additional burdens on the group engineers. Early in the afternoon the infantry support bridge, weakened from shelling, was put out of action when a half-track and trailer crashed through it, fouling the ponton structure. The bridge had not yet been repaired when Combat Command B of the 3rd Armored Division, ordered to cross the Vire at Airel on the evening of 7 July, arrived. This formidable convoy created a traffic jam at the stone bridge. On 8 and 9 July group engineers repaired the infantry support bridge, widened the stone bridge to take two-way traffic including armor, and built a ninety-foot triple-single Bailey to supplement it.10
The Crossing of the Vire and Taute Canal
The 120th Infantry was to cross the twenty-foot-wide Vire and Taute Canal at the point where Route 174, the highway from Carentan to St. Lô, crossed the canal, but the bridge there was down. Because the canal was quite shallow, the plan was for most of the infantrymen to wade over. For troops of the heavy weapons companies and for the litter bearers evacuating casualties, Company C of the 105th Engineer Combat Battalion fabricated duck-boards in ten-foot sections.
The crossing was to begin at 1330 on 7 July. At midmorning the XIX Corps engineer received a message from the corps G-3 that the water in the canal was deeper than expected, presumably because the Germans had opened locks that controlled the tidal stream. The corps engineer ordered the 1104th Engineer Combat Group to close the locks, but the unit could not do so in time to ease the crossing. Finding the canal deeper and wider than they had expected, the infantrymen hesitated to start wading, and the engineers found their duckboards inadequate. After some confusion and a fifteen-minute delay, the lead troops of the 120th Infantry finally plunged into the canal, and the men of the 105th Engineer Combat Battalion erected a footbridge in thirty-five minutes. Heavy enemy artillery, mortar, and small-arms fire cost the engineers five men killed and twenty-six wounded.11
Continuous German artillery fire at the site of the destroyed Route 174 bridge delayed for several hours the emplacement of a bridge that could accommodate the tanks of the 113th Cavalry Group, Mechanized. In a rear area, Company A of the 1104th Engineer Combat Group’s 246th Engineer Combat Battalion had constructed thirty-six feet of treadway bridge, loaded it on Brockway trucks, and was waiting only for some halt in the artillery fire to emplace the treadway. On an order at 1615 from the commanding general of the 30th Division to disregard enemy fire and erect the bridge, the engineers arranged with divisional artillery to lay down a smoke barrage. The emplacement required split-second timing. As the first smoke shells landed, men of the 246th Engineer Combat Battalion,
aided by the 992nd Treadway Bridge Company, brought the Brockways up to the site; they had the treadways in place in less than twenty minutes, just as the smoke screen lifted. Traffic started flowing across immediately. The 120th Infantry commended Company A of the 246th Engineer Combat Battalion for a “fine job.”12
The VII Corps in the Vire-Taute Area
To protect XIX Corps’ right flank and to help VII Corps outflank German resistance on the Carentan-Periers corridor, General Bradley decided to commit VII Corps’ 9th Division in the area between the Taute and Vire Rivers. The division crossed the Vire and Taute Canal on 9 July and next day attacked west toward the Taute River. In addition to its own 15th Engineer Combat Battalion, the 9th Division had the direct support of the 237th Engineer Combat Battalion, 1106th Engineer Combat Group, a battalion that had distinguished itself in the D-day landings at UTAH Beach. The group commander explained the meaning of “direct support” to the engineer battalion and company commanders at a conference on the evening before the canal crossing. He defined it as doing “anything within reason to assist the attacking divisions.”13
This the engineers did. While the 15th Engineer Combat Battalion concentrated on furnishing hedgerow-blasting teams and performing road work and mine clearance, the 237th made a major contribution in bridging, building bypasses, widening and patching roads, and clearing mines. During minefield clearance northwest of St. Jean-de-Daye, the engineers discovered a new type of German mine—the “bottle mine”—made from a quart wine bottle, the lower half filled with earth, the upper half with a yellow crystalline explosive mixed with copper wire, nails, and tin, and corked with an igniter. The engineers worked often under artillery fire and in the face of several strong German counterattacks.
Vire Crossings from Airel to St. Lô
While the 30th Division battered its way down the high ridge west of the Vire, XIX Corps’ 35th and 29th Divisions advanced down the east bank. The 35th, nearer the river, had the support of the 234th Engineer Combat Battalion, attached to the 1115th Engineer Combat Group.
The next bridge was to be erected near Cavigny, about halfway between Airel and Pont-Hebert, about four miles to the south. In planning, the commanding officer of the 1115th Group used aerial photographs and maps, but according to group policy the final decision on the type of bridge to be used, treadway or Bailey (both types were available), depended on reconnaissance at the site. To get exact measurements the site selection party sometimes had to wade and swim the river under heavy enemy artillery, mortar, and small-arms fire. Although the Germans had good observation of the bridge site at Cavigny, the 247th Engineer Combat Battalion was able to install a 110-foot triple-single Bailey bridge there on 12 July.
Next day the group received orders
to build a bridge over the Vire a mile or so farther south, at La Meauffe. Moving on the heels of the infantry, the 234th Engineer Combat Battalion reached the work site on 16 July almost before the last German had left. By midnight the men had erected a Bailey similar to that at Cavigny, a treadway bridge, and a bypass to route heavy traffic away from the railroad overpass, which artillery fire had seriously weakened. The 503rd Engineer Light Ponton Company, attached to the 1115th Group on 15 July, brought up the Bailey bridging. Following a pattern established at the Vire and other rivers in Normandy, the engineers replaced Bailey bridges as soon as possible with timber bridges and took the Baileys forward for use in later crossings. Likewise, whenever possible—as at the stone bridge at Airel—they removed treadway so as to make it available for subsequent temporary bridging.
Information the 1115th Engineer Combat Group obtained from a French citizen who had been the government engineer for roads and bridges in the St. Lô area considerably eased planning for an important bridge at Pont-Hebert, where Route 174 from Carentan to St. Lô crossed the Vire. Of particular value was the civilian engineer’s advice on manipulating the locks on the tidal Vire River at Airel and La Meauffe. This information enabled American engineers to lower the water level when a crossing was desired and to raise it, as necessary, to protect the 35th Division’s flanks. After reconnaissance discovered an underwater bridge the Germans had built at Rampan, a town at a bend of the river about halfway between Pont-Hebert and St. Lô, the engineers suddenly closed the lock at La Meauffe one night, raising the level of the water at Rampan more than seven feet. This tactic denied the bridge to the enemy and drowned some Germans leading horse-drawn artillery across.14
One question the French engineer could not answer was whether a railroad overpass immediately east of Pont-Hebert was intact. Here, help came from artillery observation plane crews who bivouacked in the same hedgerow fields as the group engineers. The pilots reported several times daily not only on the condition of the overpass (which the Germans never demolished) but also on the bridge itself. The task of constructing the two bridges, a tread-way and a Bailey, went to the 234th Engineer Combat Battalion, largely as a result of its excellent work at Cavigny and La Meauffe. The unit began work late on 18 July, and with the help of two officers from the 992nd Treadway Bridge Company had a 156-foot floating treadway bridge in place by 0630. At 1100 the 503rd Ponton Company brought up a 130-foot double-double Bailey bridge, which was ready for traffic by 1800.
Several hours before the engineers began bridge operations at Pont-Hebert on 18 July, a 29th Division task force captured the battered, bombed-out city of St. Lô. With the task force came a platoon of Company C of the 29th’s organic 121st Engineer Combat Battalion to clear the streets of rubble. A sergeant of the engineer platoon claimed to be the first American to enter St. Lô.15
VII Corps Engineers in the Cobra Breakthrough
While XIX Corps was assuming engineer responsibility for the construction and maintenance of bridges and roads, it was also preparing its part in Operation COBRA. The operation called for troops to break out of the bocage and through the German lines to the south, then to liberate more ports in Brittany. To open the offensive, air forces were to deluge a well-defined area south of the St. Lô–Periers road with light antipersonnel bombs designed to destroy enemy troop concentrations without tearing up the terrain to the detriment of attacking American armor and infantry. The corps’ mission was to seize and hold a line from Coutances to Marigny, about eight miles to the northeast, in order to cut off and destroy the enemy facing VIII Corps in the Lessay–Périers area and to prevent German reinforcements’ approach from the south and east. Armor to support the thrust was to pass through gaps the 9th and 30th Infantry Divisions opened. The VII Corps engineers devoted their efforts to opening and maintaining main supply routes (MSRs) to support the advance.16
The 1106th Engineer Combat Group was to support the 30th Infantry Division, advancing along high ground on the Vire’s west bank with the 2nd Armored Division following. The area had two main supply routes. One MSR (D77), a two-way road for Class 40 traffic, was the responsibility of the group’s 49th Engineer Combat Battalion; the other (D-446), a one-way Class 40 road, the 237th Engineer Combat Battalion was to open and maintain. A third engineer combat battalion, the 238th, would support the 2nd Armored Division. On VII Corps’ right flank the 1120th Engineer Combat Group was to support the 1st and 9th Infantry Divisions and the 3rd Armored Division. The 1120th’s 294th and 297th Engineer Combat Battalions were responsible for maintaining the two main supply routes—from Tribehou to Marignyon the right flank, while the 298th Engineer Combat Battalion was to support the 3rd Armored Division. Army engineer support in the VII Corps area was the responsibility of the 1111th Engineer Combat Group. About a week before COBRA, Maj. Gen. Manton S. Eddy, commanding the 9th Division, complained that the front assigned his division was too wide. General Bradley then gave VII Corps the 4th Infantry Division to attack down the center of the breakthrough area. The 1106th and 1120th Groups divided the engineer support mission for the 4th Division.17
According to the VII Corps plan, the 9th, 4th, and 30th Divisions were to be near the St. Lô–Périers road on 20 July, ready to break through as soon as possible after a massive air bombardment. But pouring rain and cloudy skies forced postponement of the bombardment until the morning of 25 July. By 17 July the engineers were at work on the main supply routes down which the tanks were to roll, sweeping the roads from shoulder to shoulder for mines, repairing craters and potholes, and clearing away rubble. For the difficult
problem of removing abandoned heavy German tanks, the 1106th Engineer Combat Group supplied heavy block and tackle of about fifty-ton capacity, threaded with 7/8-inch cable and operated by a four-ton wrecker. The 49th Engineer Combat Battalion tested the equipment successfully on a Tiger tank. Later the battalion used a simpler method for one more or less intact tank—the battalion’s S-3 removed booby traps from the tank and drove it off the road under its own power. For “rush crossings” of bomb craters the 1106th Engineer Combat Group supplied the 2nd Armored Division with sections of treadway bridging.18
“It’s raining very hard,” noted the 1106th Group’s journal on 21 July; next day it was “still pouring.” Mud made the construction of bypasses for infantry troops difficult, and gravel had to be brought up and stockpiled at strategic points to keep the four main supply routes firm enough for tanks. The work went on under increasingly heavy enemy artillery fire. For example, on the evening of 21 July at an engineer bivouac near Tribehou, German shells-exploded a demolition dump, killing two men of the 298th Engineer Combat Battalion and wounding fourteen. On 23 July the weather began to clear, and on the morning of the twenty-fifth the engineers maintaining the roads in the VII Corps area saw the sky blackened with Allied planes. The COBRA breakthrough had begun. As the infantry divisions broke across the Coutances-St. Lô highway between Marigny and St. Gilles, the engineers, working night and day, had roads ready for the tanks.19
VIII Corps Engineers Aid the War of Movement
For VIII Corps, the “direct pressure force” in the breakthrough, H-hour was 0530 on 26 July. The commander, Maj. Gen. Troy H. Middleton, had four divisions that he planned to move abreast in a fifteen-mile zone between the west coast of the Cotentin peninsula and the Taute River: the 79th Division facing the Ay River near Lessay on the extreme west, the 8th Division facing hedgerow country, the 90th Division along the Seves River, and the 83rd Division on the extreme left along the Taute. (Map 19) Two armored divisions, the 4th and the 6th, were to roll through gaps on the Lessay–Périers road. Because both the 79th and the 90th Divisions faced flooded regions that offered the Germans excellent fields of fire, the 8th was chosen to spearhead the attack, opening a gap. The 79th was to follow through the gap, turn west, outflank the enemy south of the Ay, and seize Lessay. Engineer support of the advance was the responsibility of the 1110th Engineer Combat Group, with its 207th Engineer Combat Battalion directly behind the 8th Division and its 148th Battalion behind the 79th Division.
In preparing for the advance the group engineers repaired roads and cleared minefields. By midafternoon, 26 July, the 28th Infantry had reached
Map merged onto previous page
the Lessay–Périers road and had made untenable the entire enemy position along the VIII Corps front; by the evening of 28 July, the Germans were in retreat, leaving behind some of the most extensive minefields encountered on the Continent. The same evening the VIII Corps engineer, Col. William R. Winslow, ordered the engineer technical intelligence team (ETIT) attached to VIII Corps, bolstered by hastily organized teams from engineer combat battalions, to instruct the tankers of the 4th and 6th Armored Divisions in mine removal. The teams worked throughout the night giving demonstrations to the armored troops with actual mustard pot, Schu, and Bouncing Betty mines. Next morning, when the armor rolled across a treadway bridge over the Ay River near Lessay (completed on the morning of 28 July by the 4th Armored Division’s 24th Armored Engineer Battalion), the commander of the ETIT, 1st Lt. James Ball, could report that he saw “men from 4th Armored taking out mines they had never heard of before like veterans.” The villages were also booby-trapped. In Lessay, a village of only 2,000, VIII Corps engineer units removed more than 300 booby traps during the afternoon of 29 July.20
Engineers of the 24th and the 25th Armored Engineer Battalions, organic to the 4th and 6th Armored Divisions,
respectively, also removed roadblocks and constructed bridges as they passed through Avranches and advanced into Brittany. Their experience illustrates operating differences between the armored engineer battalions and those in support of infantry. The armored engineer battalion was broken up into platoons, each assigned to an armored task force and operating under the command of the task force commander; the engineer battalion commander and the division engineer could thus exercise only the remotest degree of control. This situation became apparent during the speedy armored advance in the last days of July and led the 24th Armored Engineer Battalion’s commanding officer to recommend placing the “utmost emphasis” on the training of platoon and company commanders.21
Speed in reducing obstacles—whether roadblock, minefield, blown bridge, or crater—was the essence of armored engineer operations. The engineers usually employed demolitions to reduce roadblocks and tankdozers to push away rubble. Mines were lifted by hand. While corps engineers generally bridged larger streams, the armored engineer platoon or battalion (to which a bridge company was attached) performed bridging whenever possible. Engineers of the 24th Armored Engineer Battalion considered the short, unsupported span treadway their most important bridge because it was the quickest to emplace when crossing antitank obstacles. On the night of 28 July, a platoon of Company B used a 24-foot fixed-span treadway to move 4th Armored Division tanks over a road crater; the engineers completed the operation, including mine clearance, in twenty-five minutes.
On 1 August 1944, when Third Army became operational on the Continent, VIII Corps passed to its control. The army headquarters placed the 1102nd and 1107th Engineer Combat Groups in support of the corps; the 1110th Engineer Combat Group reverted to First Army. The VIII Corps also had the support of the 1117th Engineer Combat Group until 7 August, when XV Corps became operational and took over the 1117th. Because trained engineer combat battalions were in short supply, Third Army obtained two engineer general service regiments. One of them, the 1303rd, the army attached to VIII Corps.22
Siege Operations in Brittany
In the dash toward Brest—the first priority in early August because of the need for a large port—the 6th Armored Division bypassed St. Malo on the north shore of Brittany. Maj. Gen. Troy H. Middleton, the VIII Corps commander, gave the task of taking St. Malo to the 83rd Division, reinforced by the 121st Infantry of the 8th Division, a medium tank company, and corps artillery. The mission included the reduction of Dinard, directly across the mile-wide Rance River estuary from St. Malo. At Dinard (in peacetime a popular bathing resort for the British), the Germans had emplaced artillery targeted on St. Malo.
The first task for the 83rd Division’s organic 308th Engineer Combat Battalion was to move the 121st Regimental Combat Team across the Rance River
for the advance on Dinard. Upriver near Dinan, about twelve miles south of Dinard, was a stone-arch bridge that the Germans had destroyed. There, Company A of the 308th began building two bridges on the afternoon of 5 August. The first completed was a Class 9 expedient floating bridge designed to move reconnaissance elements across the river. Company A had some difficulty with the second bridge, a 140-foot Class 40 double-double Bailey built across two spans of the stone bridge. Most of the work had to be done at night and because the roadway was about two hundred feet above the water, placing the intermediate and far-shore rocking rollers was extremely hazardous. Nevertheless, the bridge was ready for traffic by 0645 on 6 August. Before midnight, Company C had constructed a sixty-foot double-single Bailey bridge and three footbridges under such intense small-arms and mortar fire that only small parties could work at one time. Next day Company B made an assault river crossing for two infantry companies near La Vicomte-sur-Rance, four miles northeast of Dinan, against small-arms fire from Germans who held commanding ground on the far shore.
Thereafter, at Dinard and St. Malo, the engineers supporting the 121st Regimental Combat Team and the 83rd Division played an important part in preliminary siege operations—destroying barricades, demolishing pillboxes to prevent the enemy from returning to them, gapping minefields, and removing booby traps. On several occasions engineers joined the infantry in flame-throwing teams. By 9 August the troops of the 83rd Division had fought their way through the suburbs of St. Malo and, after bitter street fighting, reached the old part of the city near the harbor. The Citadel de St. Servan, a concrete and natural rock fortress with walls up to fifty-five feet thick, dominated the harbor. German shells were still crashing down from Dinard as well as from the tiny offshore island of Cézembre. Sending a combat team across the Rance to assist the 121st Regimental Combat Team in reducing Dinard, the main body of the 83rd Division turned to battering down the last defenses of St. Malo.
Colonel Winslow, the VIII Corps engineer, maintained close personal liaison with the division engineers during the efforts between 9 and 12 August to breach the Citadel. On the afternoon of the tenth he led a party to explore St. Malo’s sewerage system, hoping to locate a conduit under the Citadel where a major demolition charge might be placed; he found none. Nor did the 308th Engineer Combat Battalion have any luck aboveground. After dark on each night between the ninth and the twelfth the engineers climbed over the fortifications, dropping pole charges through the Citadel’s vents and ports. Neither these nor demolitions placed under the battlements had any effect. As soon as the engineers’ explosives began going off, German artillery from Cézembre Island would come in so heavily that the engineers would have to withdraw. The siege of the Citadel continued until 17 August, when the Americans forced surrender with direct 8-inch fire, using white phosphorus shells on vents and ports.
The VIII Corps then concentrated all its efforts on taking Brest. By mid-August a swift-moving task force, composed principally of cavalry and tank-destroyer units with the 159th Engineer
Combat Battalion in support, opened a supply line to the vicinity of Brest, an essential preliminary to capturing the city. The main mission was to secure vital bridges on a double-track railway running from Rennes to Brest before the Germans could demolish them. During the operation the engineers played a vital role, often taking the place of the infantry that the task force had fruitlessly requested.
The first railway bridges seized lay at St. Brieuc, on the coast about thirty-three miles west of Dinard. The task force captured the spans intact on 7 August; Company B of the 159th Engineer Battalion remained behind to guard them and set up a cage for prisoners of war. The most important bridge on the line was at the port of Morlaix, nearly fifty miles west of St. Brieuc. A stone-arch structure about a thousand feet long and two hundred feet high, the Morlaix bridge was the largest railway viaduct in France. Minefields and antitank obstacles temporarily slowed part of the task force, but Company B of the 159th Engineer Battalion kept going with the leading tanks and helped take Morlaix, which later became the principal port of entry for supplies used at Brest. The task force captured the bridge intact, and Company B stayed behind to guard it.
The rest of the battalion then received a new mission—to remove mines and obstacles from the beaches at St. Michel-en-Grève, some twenty-five miles northeast of Morlaix on the north coast of Brittany. Supplies for Brest came ashore there from LSTs; the first beaching was on 12 August.23
At 0300 on 25 August the attack on Brest began, with three infantry divisions side by side: the 8th in the center, the 29th on the right (west), and the 2nd on the left. The city, France’s second port and a great naval base, was fortified in depth. Ten miles out into the countryside the Germans had set up roadblocks, dug antitank ditches, planted huge minefields protected by machine-gun nests, and built concrete pillboxes. These provided a defensive position as strong as any American troops encountered on the Continent.
On the morning the siege began the commander of the 8th Division’s 12th Engineer Combat Battalion, Lt. Col. E. M. Fry, Jr., was captured when he left his jeep to reconnoiter a bridge; three men of his party were killed. The battalion, aided by a company of the 202nd Engineer Combat Battalion of VIII Corps’ 1107th Engineer Combat Group, kept busy on road work, which enemy fire slowed, until 1 September. Then the 8th Division, having just reached the city limits, stopped in front of ramparts up to seventy feet thick and thirty feet high, on which the Germans had emplaced 88-mm. artillery and machine guns. Because of this formidable obstacle the task of taking Brest was turned over to the flank divisions, the 29th and the 2nd; the 8th Division turned aside to clear the Crozon peninsula, west of the port. A few days after its arrival in the new sector, Colonel Fry rejoined his battalion. He had escaped from Brest in a rowboat.
About the time the 8th Division turned aside, the 29th Division on the west flank was approaching two ancient French forts, Fort Keranroux and Fort Montbarrey. The division captured Fort Keranroux on the afternoon of 13 September, mainly with the aid of heavy
bombardment from planes and artillery. The reduction of Fort Montbarrey, a casemated fort with walls about twenty-five feet thick and surrounded by a fifty-foot moat, required intensive effort by the 29th Division’s 121st Engineer Combat Battalion. The engineers first had to get close enough to the fort, in the face of withering fire from its ports, to place charges under the wall. Colonel Winslow, the VIII Corps engineer, planned to cover the ports with flame from flame-throwing tanks. He was able to obtain twelve such tanks—known as “Crocodiles”—from the British, but to get them close enough for their fire to be effective the engineers had to go out on the night before the attack and clear a path through a heavily mined and shell-pitted approach to the fort. This task, which Company B of the 121st Engineer Combat Battalion accomplished, was the first step of what turned out to be a classic siege operation.
The first attempt to get the tanks through failed. Of four Crocodiles that started out on 14 September, two wandered from the safe path through the mines; enemy fire destroyed another. The engineers again widened the path at night, and at 1500 on 16 September three Crocodiles, concealed by a smoke screen, were able to cover the entire west side of the fort with flames. Thus protected, engineers rushed to the outer wall and placed under it 2,500 pounds of TNT, creating a breach large enough for men to pass through. Then they placed 1,200-pound charge of TNT in a tunnel leading into the fort, causing the fort’s reduction. Another party of engineers preceded the infantry, carrying scaling ladders that they set up against the fort. Scaling the roof, the assault party then used the ladders to get down into the courtyard. Within ten minutes the garrison surrendered.
Engineers of the 2nd Engineer Combat Battalion, supporting the 2nd Division approaching Brest from the east, also supplied scaling ladders as well as grappling hooks projected by rifle grenades for the infantry. But when the division came up against the ancient wall of the inner city, the engineers were unable to get close enough to blast a gap because the Germans had emplaced on the wall machine guns and a number of 88-mm. guns. The combat commanders called up the 8-inch guns that had been so successful at St. Malo. Firing from ranges as close as 5,000 yards, the big guns blasted a breach large enough for men to pass through; the engineers then widened it with explosives so that the hole would accommodate vehicles.
During the bitter house-to-house street fighting that followed, the 2nd Engineer Combat Battalion made its most valuable contribution. The engineers became adept at blowing holes in the walls of houses at points where the entering infantrymen would not have to expose themselves to enemy fire in the streets. On the eastern side, away from the enemy, the engineers blew holes through inner walls to enable the troops to pass safely from building to building and in ceilings to allow the infantry to pass from floor to floor when the Germans defended stairways. The engineers also developed several methods of quickly overcoming obstacles in the way of the advancing troops. The engineers used TNT to cut steel-rail roadblocks and learned to fill craters and ditches quickly by blowing debris into them from the walls of adjacent buildings.
In clearing debris from streets where sniper fire was prevalent, the engineers developed a new appreciation for the armored cab on D-4 angledozers.24
By the time Brest fell on 18 September, the Allies had the port of Antwerp. Brest was no longer required, and no effort was made to undertake extensive repair of the port facilities.
The Seine Crossings
At the beginning of the third week in August, even- before the siege of Brest had begun, U.S. Army engineers were helping American divisions to cross the Seine. Bridging operations began on 20 August when the 151st Engineer Combat Battalion put a tread-way over the Seine at Mantes-Gassicourt, about thirty miles northwest (as the crow flies) of Paris. By the time they reached the Seine the engineers of both First and Third Armies had become adept at getting the combat troops across rivers. After First Army’s breakthrough at Marigny–St. Gilles and Third Army’s advance east from Fougères (south of Avranches), bridge construction became the principal engineer mission. Roads across northern France were damaged in few places, and these could be quickly repaired or bypassed. The very speed of the advance prevented the Germans from either preparing extensive road demolitions or planting large minefields. Most bridges, however, were down—demolished either by the Germans or by Allied bombers.25
In supporting the advance of First Army’s VII Corps, for example, corps and division engineers built twenty-nine bridges across the Seine between 31 July and 26 August. At several important crossing sites, such as those on the Seine immediately after the breakout and others on the Mayenne and Varenne Rivers during the closing of the Falaise Gap, the ground forces required four bridges at each crossing to provide adequate roadnets. Fortunately, in most cases not all the spans of existing stone bridges were down and most abutments were intact, permitting the rapid emplacement of treadway and Bailey bridging.26
Of particular interest to the engineers was a dual roadway Bailey built over the Varenne on 7 and 8 August at Ambrières-le-Grand (about twenty miles southeast of Mortain), where only one arch of a 120-foot-long stone bridge remained in place. On the remaining pier, Company B of the 297th Engineer Combat Battalion began constructing a Class 40 Bailey at 0800 and by nightfall had completed it. That afternoon the 23rd Armored Engineer Battalion quickly emplaced a treadway alongside, crossed the tanks of the 3rd Armored Division, and then departed with the treadway. Two-lane traffic was still desired, but the abutments were not wide enough to carry two Bailey bridges side by side. The 297th Battalion converted the Bailey into a dual road structure by adding a second story to the central girder, building and launching a third girder, and then placing transoms and flooring for the second roadway. The two-lane bridge was
ready by 2000 on 8 August and proved sturdy enough to support not only a 1st Infantry Division regimental combat team crossing but also a week’s continuous supply of traffic.27
Engineers with the convoys rolling eastward found northern France “something different from Normandy: the streets black with people, who seemed to do nothing twenty-four hours a day but stand there and cheer us and wave, and weep, some of them, and throw w flowers and fruits and vegetables, and stare wide-eyed at the trucks and jeeps and tanks. What always got them most were the tank retrievers that filled the whole road, with red lights blinking, and all armored up like something from Mars, and the Long Toms and 8 inch hows. They loved them!”28
While moving up to the XIX Corps’ Seine River crossing at Meulan, a few miles northwest of Paris, the 1115th Engineer Combat Group’s long, ungainly Brockway bridge trucks, carrying sections of steel treadways and lifting equipment, made a strong impression on the Germans. During the night of 26 August a convoy that included the 295th Engineer Combat Battalion ran into a company of German soldiers. Uncertain of the enemy strength, the convoy held its fire. So did the Germans—a circumstance that mystified the Americans until two American prisoners of war, breaking away from their captors and jumping aboard the American convoy, supplied the reason. The Germans had been afraid to fire because they thought the Brockway truck was a new secret weapon—perhaps a rocket launcher.29
In the race across France the Seine River, not Paris, became the main objective. By mid-August enemy forces were fleeing the Argentan–Falaise pocket and concentrating along the lower Seine northwest of Paris. In the forefront of the pursuit, Third Army’s XV Corps was to send its 5th Armored Division down the west bank of the Seine and put its 79th Infantry Division across the river to establish a bridgehead on the east bank near Mantes-Gassicourt.
A few hours before midnight on 19 August, receiving the order to cross, the commander of the 79th sent one regiment on foot across a dam near Mantes. A torrential rain was falling. In the blackness and rain the men walked single file, each man touching the one ahead. Another regiment, plus light equipment, crossed in engineer assault boats and rafts. The crossing seemed interminable—the river was from 500 to 800 feet wide. For the first bridge the 79th Division commander borrowed 700 feet of treadway from the 5th Armored Division. By the afternoon of 20 August the treadway was installed on rubber pontons, and another infantry regiment was crossing in trucks; by nightfall the bulk of the 79th, including tanks, artillery, and tank destroyers, was across the river. During the day enemy aircraft came over and attacked the treadway; its rubber pontons made the bridge vulnerable to bullets and bomb splinters. Next morning the division engineers began to construct a less
vulnerable floating Bailey, supporting it on timber laid across four river barges. Finished at 0130 on 23 August, the improvised Bailey had to be used carefully because loads of more than forty tons caused the sides of the barges to spread apart. Nevertheless, the bridge served the division well.30
While elements of XV Corps, which temporarily passed to First Army control on 24 August, were using the Bailey over the lower Seine at Mantes-Gassicourt, engineers of Third Army’s XII and XX Corps were preparing crossings south of Paris on the upper Seine. Typical was the effort by XX Corps engineers to cross the 7th Armored Division at Melun, twenty-five miles southeast of Paris. Hopes that the bridge at Melun could be captured intact were dashed on the morning of 23 August, when the Germans destroyed the span just as Combat Command Reserve (CCR) of the 7th Armored Division was about to attack. Because Combat Command Reserve had no assault boats and was receiving heavy fire from the opposite bank, the division commander brought up Combat Command A to cross downriver from Melun and attack the city from the north. Arriving the same morning at Ponthierry, a village about five miles downstream from Melun, Combat Command A, with the 179th Engineer Combat Battalion of the 1139th Engineer
Combat Group in support, found the bridge at Ponthierry demolished. Reconnaissance revealed two suitable assault crossing sites near Tilly, a hamlet a mile to the north. After a heavy artillery preparation at 1615, two companies of the 179th Engineer Combat Battalion, using seventy-six assault boats the 509th Engineer Light Ponton Company supplied, began crossing the armored troops at both sites. Initial waves went across without casualties, but succeeding waves met rifle fire that killed two of the engineers. The engineer battalion suffered even more heavily later in the evening when a German artillery shell hit one of its trucks, killing five men.
Meantime, elements of the 179th Engineer Combat Battalion had started construction of a treadway bridge at the northernmost site, aided by elements of the 7th Armored Division’s organic 33rd Armored Engineer Battalion. (During the fast pursuit the troops of the 33rd had been riding on the outside of tanks acting as riflemen and had undertaken little engineer work.) By midnight the bridge was ready. Bulldozer operators, who prepared the approaches to the bridge as well as landing slips for a ferry operated at the south site, accomplished a particularly hazardous task under mortar, artillery, and rifle fire.
Engineers of V Corps had the enviable mission of assisting in the liberation of Paris. On 24 August reconnaissance parties of the 4th Engineer Combat Battalion, organic to the 4th Infantry Division,
which with the 2nd French Armored Division formed the bulk of V Corps, went forward to contact the French Forces of the Interior (FFI) and obtain data on Seine crossings. On the twenty-sixth, the combat engineers built a treadway bridge south of Paris and on that day and the next worked on the streets of Paris, clearing roadblocks and removing mines and booby traps. But the engineers had only two days to enjoy the riotous welcome given the liberators before the 4th Battalion moved east of Paris with its division. For the victory parade of the 28th Infantry Division down the Champs-Elysees on 29 August, engineers of V Corps’ 1171st Engineer Combat Group improvised a reviewing stand for senior American and French officers, using. a Bailey bridge turned upside down.31
Beyond the Seine
After crossing the Seine, First Army’s XIX, V, and VII Corps turned north and northeast in rapid pursuit of the fleeing and disorganized enemy. Fastest of all—“pursuit With a capital ‘P’ ”—was the headlong 100-mile dash of XIX Corps to the Belgian border at Tournai on 1 and 2 September.32 Crossing the Somme on bridges the British had captured intact with FFI help, the corps encountered no major water obstacles until it reached the Albert Canal and the Meuse River during the second week in September. In the “rather strange war” that developed, large pockets of the enemy were bypassed and Germans wandered into American bivouac areas. Two engineer task forces organized from elements of the 1104th Engineer Combat Group had the mission of rapidly clearing and maintaining roads and constructing the few bridges required.33
In the center of the First Army advance, the engineers of V Corps, supporting the 4th and 28th Infantry Divisions and the U.S. 5th Armored and 2nd French Armored Divisions, constructed a series of floating and fixed bridges over the Aisne and the Oise and various small canals to the north of those rivers. Near Cambrai, south of the Belgian border, the corps (less the 2nd French Armored Division) on 4 September turned to the right toward Luxembourg. During its march east, the corps encountered its first formidable water obstacle—the Meuse. The retreating Germans had destroyed all bridges along the line of advance-from Charleville to Sedan. At Charleville on 6 September the 1171st Engineer Combat Group erected V Corps’ first heavy ponton bridge, followed two days later by a second at Sedan. Because of the limited availability of floating equipment and of the need to keep treadway equipment with the forward elements, corps engineers rebuilt damaged bridges, including railway bridges, whenever possible. During these operations French civilians and members of the French Forces of the Interior provided helpful information concerning the status of bridges and the location of minefields.34
In the course of VII Corps’ rapid
march northeast from the Seine the first important water barrier was the Marne, but it presented few problems to the corps engineers. The 3rd Armored Division captured intact bridges at La Ferte and Chateau-Thierry, and one at Meaux, only partially destroyed, was quickly repaired. Elements of the 1120th and 1106th Engineer Combat Groups were over the border into Belgium before the end of the first week in September and made their most noteworthy contribution in bridging the Meuse in Belgium at Namur, Liege, and Dinant.
On the night of 6 September, the 1106th Group’s 238th Engineer Combat Battalion constructed a record 564-foot treadway at Namur in five hours.35 The next day the battalion spanned the Meuse with a 150-foot triple-double Bailey. Several shorter Baileys and treadways also had to be erected in the same neighborhood. The work went on under the protection of a corps antiaircraft battery; nevertheless, the battalion suffered two casualties. Beginning on 9 September the group’s 237th Engineer Combat Battalion constructed a 550-foot treadway downriver at Liege and repaired a partially demolished bridge with Bailey equipment. Enemy bombing at the sites cost the battalion casualties consisting of three men killed and a number wounded. The most important effort of the 1120th Group took place upriver at Dinant, where the 297th Engineer Combat Battalion spent more than twelve hours on 9 and 10 September constructing a 287-foot, Class 40 floating Bailey, working most of the time in heavy fog.36
During Third Army’s rapid dash to the Moselle from the Seine, where General Patton relinquished the Melun bridgehead to First Army, the principal water barriers were the Marne and the Meuse. On 28 August tanks of the 4th Armored Division, spearheading the advance of XII Corps, found the main bridge at Chalons-sur-Marne blown. The debris blocking the river formed a temporary dam, enabling the engineers of the 24th Armored Engineer Battalion to construct a hasty ford by which the entire task force crossed in 1 l/2 hours. As the water rose, the engineers constructed a treadway trestle bridge, and on the following day the 248th Engineer Combat Battalion of the 1117th Engineer Combat Group camped a few miles upstream at Vitry-le-Francois. By 31 August the 4th Armored Division was crossing the Meuse at Commercy over bridges seized intact. To the north the 1139th Engineer Combat Group, supporting the advance of XX Corps, found, on 29 August, two undamaged, permanent wooden bridges of unlimited capacity at Chateau-Thierry on the Marne. Treadways at other points were all completed the same day. At Verdun, where the main highway bridge crossed the Meuse, the Germans had installed mines, but the FFI was able to prevent demolition. On 31 August, XX Corps was over the Meuse in strength.37
Toward the end of August ominous entries had begun to appear in the journals of the engineer combat groups of First and Third Armies. Gasoline was running short, as were certain items of bridge-building equipment. The armies had outrun their supply depots, which
were far to the rear, most of them at the original invasion beaches. The problem was mainly one of transportation. The damage to railway lines and bridges had been extensive, principally as a result of Allied bombing. The installation of pipelines for petroleum, oil, and lubricants, an engineer responsibility, could not keep pace with the headlong advance of the combat forces, and trucks became the only means of getting supplies forward.38 A particularly troublesome problem for the combat engineers was map supply—either because maps could not be sent forward in time to be of use or because the combat forces were moving into areas for which no maps were available. Leading elements of the 4th Armored Division, which during August traveled more than a thousand miles in less than thirty days, normally operated with road maps obtained from the FFI or captured German stocks. One of the first tasks of the engineers entering Verdun was to scour the city for German maps.39
For both U.S. armies, the pursuit ended the second week in September
when Third Army met stiffening German resistance at the Moselle and First Army slowed down at the Siegfried Line in Belgium. By that time troops were exhausted, equipment was badly worn, and disturbing shortages in critical supplies had begun to appear. New offensives by both armies were authorized in mid-September, but it soon became apparent that stronger Communications Zone support was imperative.40