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Breakthrough to Lorient
On 25 July, an enormous air assault was launched, visible from our area. This was the air preparation for the St Lo breakthrough. After several false starts, the Ninety-Fourth moved out to the south with CCA on 29 July. The same day, it was shifted to the support of CCB, which preceded CCA at Coutances. The following day saw the battalion, together with the Sixty-Sixth Armored Field Artillery Battalion, moving with CCB in its single-column marching-fight to Avranches. The principle obstacles were mines, concrete road blocks and hastily defended towns which had to be softened up by artillery. The speed of the march was such that the use of battalion positions was prohibited. The missions were handled by the six batteries of the Sixty-Sixth and the Ninety-Foutrh, constantly leap-frogging to stay within range. The situation was fluid, the flanks were exposed and the division was finally engaged in a true armored assault. At Sartilly, Battery "B"s RO half-track was knocked out by an emplaced German 88, resulting in the deaths of Technician Fifth Grade Joseph A. Shook and Private First Class George H. Adamson. These were the first fatal injuries suffered in the battalion. During a temporary halt at LaHaye Pesnil, Corporal Bernard T. Gallagher and Private First Class Lige Lewis of Battery "C", acting on some information given them by an infantryman, entered a house and led out nine krauts, the first prisoners taken 'by the battery.
The same night (30 July) found CCB an isolated American force containing Avranches and holding the river crossings necessary to gain further advances the following day. The Ninety-Fourth and Sixty-Sixth established an all-around defense position two. miles north of Avranches, where they set up road blocks covering the main highway intersection. Shortly after occupation, in the general cleaning out of the area, prisoners began to stream in. During the night, the road block to the north netted two German vehicles which were captured. A third was able to make its getaway and warned a German vehicular column which could be heard to the north. Some Germans, believed to be in a captured American scout car, pierced one road block and set afire a 105mm SP of the Sixty-Sixth which was covering the road block and which exploded for several hours. The exploding shells set fire to the camouflage net on a four-ton prime mover belonging to Battery "A", of the 969th Field Artillery Battalion, which was attached to us at the time. Captain Charles E. Temple, Captain Robert D. Franks, Technical Sergeant Carl P. Bergman and Private John R. McGann cleared the vehicle of the burning net. Private Miles J. McClelland, who was wounded while driving the truck to safety, was awarded the Silver Star Medal for saving the life of a wounded soldier who had been asleep on top of the ammunition in the truck.
Here, for the first time, we had a battery of medium artillery attached to the battalion. This battery, Battery "A" 969th Field Artillery Battalion, although truck-drawn, managed to keep up with the advance very well as long as we had good roads to follow. Through a liaison officer marching with them, we were able to get accurate fire with reasonable speed. Their fire on the city of Avranches was effective in spite of the fact that they had to use the water from their canteens to swab the bores, because they had lost their water truck. Also during the night's action, Lt Albert Hoffman, who was one of our observers with the Fifty-Third Armored Infantry Battalion, had his peep captured. He, Staff Sergeant Virgil O. Shifflett and Private First Class Samuel W. Curry were forced to hide out until the battalion passed through the next day.
On the following morning, CCB cleared Avranches, consolidated its position, and the Ninety-Fourth and Sixty-Sixth, which operated a joint PW enclosure, turned over 1800 prisoners to the division.
About noon, we were contacted by the forward elements of CCA, which was following CCB. We were informed of the new plan, shifting the Ninety-Fourth and Sixty-Sixth to CCA in its mission to move in four columns through Avranches and secure the dams at Ducey. The battalion went into position about two miles north of the dams and set up all-around defense. A road block, consisting of a mine field covered by a machine gun, netted a German truck, a'nd patrols took fifteen prisoners.
This period was marked by the heroic actions of Colonel Graham in his efforts to maintain liaison with supported and higher commanders, which necessitated his moving alone, with driver Technician Fifth Grade Lyie W. Vick, at all hours of the day and night over uncleared roads and German infested areas.
On 1 August, the battalion moved from Ducey to an area north of Rennes. The entire column had been going very fast and butted into the anti-aircraft defenses of Rennes, which had also been an anti-aircraft school. Here eight 88mm AA guns, in concrete emplacements and defended by a trench system, formed one of the most formidable strong points the column had yet encountered The Thirty-Fifth Tank Battalion, the Tenth Infantry Battalion and the Sixty-Sixth FA Bn, which were leading the column, suffered considerable casualties. When the Ninety-Fourth moved into position a short distance from the Sixty-Sixth, it also drew heavy time-fire counter-battery, forcing it to move to an alternate position.
During the night, Lt Hoffman, who was with the Tenth Armored Infantry Battalion, lost his second peep due to enemy fire. The next day, the combat command decided to by-pass Rennes to the south, .and left the Ninety-Fourth and Tenth to contain it until the arrival of the Eighth Infantry Division. The unit experienced something new when it was attacked by thirty enemy planes during the day.
On 3 August, the long-awaited Thirteenth Infantry Regiment of the Eighth Infantry Division arrived a'nd made an unsuccessful attack on Rennes just before dark. Lt Harry H. Truitt accompanied the attack and was pinned down by enemy small arms, mortar and artillery fire, and was forced to abandon his radio. Corporal Albert F. Crichfield, who was in the party, in the face of the fire, recovered the radio and was recommended for the Bronze Star Medal for his part in the action.
What might have been a very effective artillery battle was somewhat marred by reports of allied PW hospitals and installations in Rennes near lucrative targets, by other reports of surrender negotiations with the German garrison and by conflicting rumors. These reports and these rumors resulted in restrictions on times and places on which we could fire. The fall of Rennes was accomplished the next day when the Thirteenth Infantry Regiment moved in without resistance.
On 5 August, the battalion left Rennes to join CCA which was marching from Bain de Bretagne to Vannes on the coast, and it closed near Vannes the following day. Vannes, which had been liberated by elements of the French Resistance, was untouched by the war and afforded the battalion much needed maintenance, rest and relaxation. But even so Battery "A" captured nine prisoners while clearing a swimming site.
On the 'seventh, the Ninety-Fourth moved out in support of CCA on its mission to take Lorient in an attack from the east. The war in Brittany was always full of surprises. At Auray, on the road to Hennebont, Battery "C", as advance guard battery, stopped temporarily in the center of town during a halt in the column. While receiving champagne, flowers and a serenade from a French civilian band, the battery received a message by radio from the head of the column that there was fighting in the streets of Auray. At the same instant, a tank gun ripped a hole in the county house and the French band disappeared to the cellars. The battery, unable to occupy a position in the center of town, took defensive positions until the resistance was cleared.
The important U-boat base of Lorient was ringed by heavy anti-aircraft installations and mine fields. The anti-personnel defenses were close to completion. At Hennebont the column came within range of these anti-aircraft defenses and was taken under direct fire. The point of the Thirty-Seventh Tank Battalion saw the bridge blown in their faces and were then subjected to bitter fighting from three directions. Lt Dillman, a tank observer, and his crew were wounded by this fire. Meanwhile, Battery "C", the advance guard battery, occupied a position on the forward slope overlooking the action, taking what possible defilade was afforded, and answered all calls for fire, while the battalion occupied positions on the reverse slope. As no crossing could be found in the town, the column fanned out along the stream and found a bridge a few miles to the north which was defended by a White Russian Cavalry brigade. The fight at St. Giles and the passage through the town turned out to be one of the bloodiest scenes the battalion was ever to witness. The lead elements of a troop of White Russian cavalry were encountered on a sunken road on the outskirts of the town. The ensuing fight of armor against horse cavalry left the road littered with bodies of men and horses, guns and equipment. The only route of advance lay over the fallen bodies and when the battalion arrived, the road was covered by a mass of crushed flesh and bones, with gutters running streams of blood. Wounded and maimed men and horses lined the sides of the sunken road and the main street of the town, often falling under the tracks of the attacking force to be ground into the unsightly mass. The battalion was preoccupied in a running fire fight against the enemy troops that had escaped slaughter in the attack and who had retreated to the roofs of houses in the town.
After a bloody small arms fight, the combat command passed on over the bridge and the Ninety-Fourth went into position near Caudan. As darkness closed, the outer defenses had been pierced and it is possible that if there had been several remaining hours of daylight, Lorient would have been a different story.
On the following day, local gains were made by the Thirty-Seventh Tank Battalion in cleaning out anti-aircraft gun positions, and a surrender ultimatum was sent to the German garrison commander.
Colonel Graham manned an observation post in Caudan and fired at targets of opportunity, enemy cavalry and trucks. The surrender ultimatum was refused and the plans were changed to contain Lorient with CCB and move CCA back to Vannes. The battalion received orders shifting it to CCB and went into position on 9 August near Pont Scorn, where it remained until the fifteenth of August when the Sixth Armored Division relieved CCB. This siege of Lorient consisted largely of firing counter-battery at positions located by the battalion's flash bases, and constant patrolling by small armored task forces.
The movement to Lorient put a terrific strain on supply lines. Only thirty per cent of Service Battery's supply vehicles were in column at any one time, the remainder coming and going continually. Battalion supply lines were over one hundred twenty five miles long, making it necessary to split Service Battery into two supply echelons. One echelon was located at Vannes and the other with the battalion outside of Lorient, a distance of sixty-five miles. Technician Fourth Grade William Cutrone and his Service Battery ration crew discovered a burning German warehouse full of French Champagne. Before the raging fire completely consumed the 'building, they had recovered enough champagne to issue three bottles per man to each member of the battalion.
The breakthrough and the dash to Lorient were characterized by the finest tactical air support. Air and ground forces acted as a single team. The P-47's strafed the roads barely yards ahead of the leading tank, or were on call to bomb German installations. Acting deeper in enemy territory, the planes caused untold damage to vehicles and personnel fleeing our advancing columns.
While our air corps reigned supreme in the daylight hours, the Luftwaffe took the advantage at night. Their JU-88's attempted to draw fire and locate our units at night. Anyone so unwary as to show a light or fire a machinegun skywards would be greeted with blinding flares and bombs.
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