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The 30th Infantry Division was not involved in the initial onslaught of D-Day as were the 1st, 29th & 4th Infantry Divisions and the 2nd and 5th Ranger Battalions, but as time went on, the 30th received their full share of unexpected wartime disasters.
From all historical accounts and much other publicity, the Battle of St. LO was won alone by the 29th Infantry Division, but it must not be overlooked that they had a lot of assistance from the 1st, 35th and 30th Infantry Divisions. Without the assistance of these Divisions, it would have taken much longer, and at a greater loss of lives to the men of the 29th Infantry Division.
This account will cover the major assistance given to the 29th Infantry Division, by the 30th Infantry Division.
The 30th Division was committed to its baptism of fire on 15 June 1944, in a sector previously occupied by the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division, with its first headquarters being established at a point just one mile south of Isigny, after leaving Omaha Beach.
A few small communities were liberated, the Vire et Taute Canal crossed, and the first town, St. Jean-de-Daye, was liberated on 7 July. The Battle for St. LO had begun seriously on 3 July, continuing on for the next few days with fierce hedgerow fighting. In preparation for this great decisive battle, the 30th Infantry Division was assigned the formidable task of taking the high ground, a ridge, just to the west of St. LO.
This was accomplished by 20 July, and thus denied the Germans of their prime observation positions overlooking St. LO, which had been the major deterrent for the 29th Division to enter and liberate the City of St. LO.
With St. LO liberated and in the hands of the 29th Infantry Division, the next major task for the 30th Infantry Division was to create a major breach in the German defensive line, running parallel to the St. LO - Periers highway. This was called "Operation Cobra".
Reorganization had taken place during the short lull in the battle while pre-paring for Operation Cobra which included filling the ranks with new replacements, caused by the many casualties endured in the past month. Each individual and unit was re-supplied with additional equipment and ammunition, in anticipation of the expansion after the planned breakthrough.
Plans and preparations were made and studied thoroughly, so that every man in each unit knew his job and how the overall plan was to work. All we had to wait for was notification of H-Hour on the designated date.
The general plan called for a tremendous air bombardment by the Air Corps, followed by a huge artillery saturation. Then at H-Hour, the 30th was to move forward swiftly through the hedgerows, overcome the Main Line of Resistance of the Germans, creating a wide breach in the MLR. This would allow Gen. George Patton Jr., and his newly formed Third Army to pass through our lines and to exploit the breakthrough, then swiftly proceed southward towards the Brest Peninsula.
In the days immediately preceding the target date, then set for 24 July, Gen. Omar Bradley and others were in England coordinating the battle plan and attack with the Air Corps.
Considerable argument arose concerning the direction of the Air Corps attack and bombing . The Air Corps wanted to bomb head on, perpendicular to the German MLR - the St. LO-Periers highway, as this would allow the least amount of exposure time for the planes to be targeted by the German anti-aircraft artillery. Gen. Bradley disagreed with this approach, as it would be too risky for such close in bombing, in case of a few bombs being dropped short of their target.
He demanded that the Air Corps plan to bomb the MLR from an East to West direction, parallel to the St. LO-Periers highway, thus lessening the possibility of any bombs dropping short, and landing on our troops poised for the jump-off.
The target date of 24 July was set, and H-Hour was set for 11:30 A.M. All was well so far, with everything and everybody in readiness to jump off, including Gen. Patton and his Third Army. A few hours prior to H-Hour, all of the troops of the 30th were withdrawn 1,200 yards to the North, just in case, and to allow for any mis-directed bombs or artillery shells dropping short.
About one hour before H-Hour, there were over 50 Battalions of artillery of various caliber, firing into the target area. The heaviest artillery barrage since the Omaha Beach landings.
At 15 minutes prior to the H-Hour, the 30th Division Artillery fired a preparation of red smoke shells, to be dropped on the southern side of the St. LO-Periers highway. This was to more clearly define the Bomb-Line for the Air Corps.
Disaster was about to strike !!
As soon as the red smoke shells were fired, landed and exploded, and the red smoke began to disperse along the MLR and highway, just as it was planned, a slight breeze from the South came up, and the smoke began to slowly drift back towards the north. In just a matter of minutes, the red smoke was on top of our 30th Division men, waiting for H-Hour.
When the planes left England, they were operating under radio silence, and there was no means established at that time, to reach the planes, to divert or call off the bombing. Ground to Air liaison was later established, due to this incident, but even then, it was not totally perfected.
At this very same time, the high pitched drone of the engines of over 350 P-47's, followed by the deeper drone of 1,500 heavy bombers could be heard, coming from the North! Not from the East as had been planned and expected.
Since there was no Ground to Air liaison or contact, and since the planes were required to maintain radio silence from the time they left England, until their mission was accomplished, there was no way whatsoever to warn them about the northward drift of the red smoke, and to request that they bomb the area south of the red smoke and the St. LO-Periers highway.
As the armada of planes reached the designated target area, bombs began to be released, raining down directly on the "red smoke line", and our 30th Division troops!
Such a tragedy!! Could it have been avoided? Why did the Air Corps, after agreeing to bomb parallel to the MLR, did they bomb perpendicular to the MLR? Who was responsible for this decision change? Perhaps we will never know nor get any satisfactory answers.
On 24 July, the 120th Regiment sustained 24 men killed and 128 wounded ; the 119th Regiment had 5 killed and 28 wounded, as a result of this tragedy, but the 117th Regiment escaped because they were in reserve at this particular time. Other Divisions to our right and left, also sustained some losses, but the 30th being in the center of the line, the main point of the planned breakthrough, took the heaviest losses.
It was a tremendously demoralizing blow to the men of the 30th! But, quite naturally, the planned attack at H-Hour on that day at 11:30 AM was cancelled. It was immediately decided to execute the same attack plan the following day, 25 July, with the infantry to jump of in the attack at 11:00 AM. In such a short time, it was extremely difficult to reorganize, resupply and integrate a few available replacements and be ready for this second attempt at the same plan at H-Hour on the 25th.
The next morning arrived, bright and sunny, as on the day before. All was in readiness: Troops were withdrawn their 1,200 yards, artillery poured its barrage on the designated target areas and marked the MLR with red smoke shells and they awaited H-Hour.
Unknown to most, only one thing was different. In recent days, Lt. Gen. Leslie Mc Nair who had recently left his post in Washington as C.G. Army Ground Forces, was assigned to a newly created position and found himself at the Hq. of the 2nd Battalion of the 120th Infantry Regiment, where the most casualties had occurred the day before. His purpose was to observe the actions and readiness of the troops and the air drop, to see if it could be determined what went wrong on the previous day, and how it could possibly have been prevented.
The preparation time had arrived and the "red smoke shells" went out, falling directly on the predesignated targets, the MLR just south of the St. LO-Periers highway. Again, much to their dismay, the slight southerly breeze came up, drifting the red smoke back about 1,200 yards, right on top of our troops, just as it had the day before!
The sound of the droning planes were again heard to the North. With the clear sky, it was easy to see the relatively low flying bombers, as they opened their bomb bays, and the bombs began falling out. To their horror, they were being dropped right on our troops once again.
For a second day in a row, tragedy struck the 30th Infantry Division, with 64 more men killed and 374 wounded and 60 missing in action. Those missing in action, were presumably buried alive in this bombing, and were later uncovered and accounted for. Some received direct hits in their foxholes, and were totally vaporized. To add to this tragedy, Lt. Gen. Leslie Mc Nair was killed in this action! Such a tragic loss to occur on the 1st day of his combat observation.
Now what to do? Cancel again? Go ahead with the attack? These were the questions facing not only the 30th Division, but questions facing the adjacent Divisions who had not been affected by the bombing, but were in complete readiness to jump off at H-Hour, and the Corps and Army Headquarters.
Quickly the decision was made - to go ahead with the attack as planned. The Germans "had been warned" for two days in a row, and the element of surprise was entirely gone by now.
Hastily, the front line units were reorganized as best they could under the circumstances, but there were no replacements available nor was there time for re-supplying and re-equipping the troops. They would just have to do the best that they could with what they had.
Thus, a poorly led, equipped and demoralized army of men went forward to do the best that they could do.
They found that the Germans were not as badly hurt as they had anticipated, were well dug in, and held their defensive positions very well, but in short order, their MLR was breached. It was found that the Germans had been unable to move any armor up to the front, or additional replacements, so there was little depth to the MLR. Once it had been breached, the way was open for Patton and his Third Army to break through and head for Brest.
The 30th Infantry Division was soon pinched out of the front line and went into reserve for the first time since their combat action began on 15 June. After these past 49 days, the men had the opportunity to get a shower - a first for everyone - replace clothing and equipment, take in replacements for the casualties of the bombing and breaching the MLR and a short but well deserved rest. A U.S.O. show and movies were available for most and was a welcome change of activity.
The rest period was short lived, as the 30th was called upon to hurriedly entruck southward toward Mortain. Their mission was to relieve the 1st Infantry Division, which was in a quiet defensive position, but holding a critical pivot point on Hill #314. All was Quiet here !! The 1st Division was to be transferred and join Patton's Third Army to head for Malo and Brest. They bid us good bye and wished us well.
Little did they know what they had left behind.
For the sequel to this action, see: "Battle of Mortain" on the following WebPages.
Frank W. Towers
President & Historian
30th Inf. Div. Veterans of WWII
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