Battle of the Meuse River, Belgium, 4 – 7 September 1944
A tragic river, the Meuse has always been present on the route of European invasions and rivalries. Once again, this river will be the sad witness of a battle to cross it. This time it was the 9th Infantry Division that would be at the forefront of the Allied offensive, having been given the task of charging eastwards to secure the various river crossings.
As a division composed of veterans of the North African, Sicilian and Normandy campaigns, the 9th Infantry Division was given the heavy task of crossing the Meuse and securing its bridges on the morning of 3 September 1944. The valley of the Meuse between Givet and Namur has the particularity to present impressive steep cliffs as banks, in particular on the right bank, where the SS units will entrench themselves as from September 3rd, 1944.
The battlefield was divided into two sectors on either side of the town of Dinant, with the 39th Infantry Regiment in the north and the 60th Infantry Regiment in the south. Bridges and catwalks were the priority of the reconnaissance elements, with the idea of avoiding at all costs the main bridge of Dinant, certainly a strong point of the German defense.
The attack of the 39th I.R. in the north
Arriving with his 39th Infantry Regiment in the Anhée region late in the afternoon of 4 September, Lieutenant-Colonel Van H. Bond and his battalion commanders carried out reconnaissance themselves in order to identify the existing crossing points. Three sites were quickly chosen and orders were given to the infantrymen: H-Hour was set for midnight and they would cross the river on board boats from the engineers.
The first two sites were assigned to 1st Battalion. These are two locks, the first of which is situated between Rivière and Godinne and the second between Hun and Yvoir. The 1st Battalion, lightened from its Charley Company, is divided into two groups. At Rivière, the battalion commander (Lt-Col Henry P. Tucker) would lead “A” Group, consisting of Able Company, a machine gun platoon, an artillery observer and an engineer boat party; while the second officer, Major James Richardson, would command ‘B’ Group, consisting of Baker Company, an engineer group and their boats, a mortar and machine gun platoon and an artillery observer, to cross at Yvoir lock. The third crossing site was a railway bridge from Anhée to Houx, and this was allocated to 3rd Battalion, commanded by Lt-Col. Robert H. Stumpf.
Staff of the 39th Infantry Regiment in April 1944, on the occasion of Winston Churchill’s official visit. From left to right: Frank L. Gunn (2/39), Robert H. Stumpf (3/39), Philip C. Tinley (1/39) (killed on 9 June 1944 and replaced by Henry P. Tucker), Van H. Bond (second in command of the regiment at the time), and Colonel Harry A. ‘Paddy’ Flint, the regiment’s iconic commander, killed on 26 July 1944 and replaced by Van H. Bond.
(Ft. Benning MCoE Museum)
It was past midnight and to the north the engineer boats had not arrived. The attack was postponed until 5 hours the next morning and the day was beginning to dawn when the fifteen boats set off on the Meuse. Suddenly, heavy fire dragged twelve of the fifteen boats to the bottom and with them the unfortunate infantrymen. One boat managed to turn back and the two in front hit the enemy shore. About twenty-five men fought until their ammunition ran out. Those who were not killed surrendered to the SS. At Hun lock, the bridge was impassable and Major Richardson, leading B Group, decided to turn back.
At Anhée, 3rd Battalion was luckier. Stumpf did not use the railway footbridge, but discovered a second footbridge that crossed the island of Houx before reaching a small gap south of the village of Houx. This was a success, but not immediately reported to headquarters. Bond, without any news from 3rd Battalion, decided to launch Lt-Col. Frank L. Gunn’s 2nd Battalion in an attack of Dinant to create a diversion, which was immediately repelled by a dozen machine gun nests defending Dinant. It was while retreating that the men of 2nd Battalion discovered the bridge used by Stumpf and his men, which they immediately crossed to join the 3rd Battalion, covered by artillery and mortar fire which created a smoke screen. At 7 hour in the evening , the two battalions were deployed on the right bank, south of Houx.
Colonel Bond’s “Falcons” are opposed by the SS of the 12. SS-Panzer-Division “Hitlerjugend” commanded by the infamous Kurt Meyer. Heavily tested by the fighting in Normandy, the SS units formed tactical groups rather than regiments as originally. After the crossing of 2nd and 3rd Battalions, “Panzer Meyer” will concentrate his efforts on the Houx plain and organize deadly counter-attacks by launching all his available forces, day and night. It was not until the arrival of the tanks of Task Force King (3rd Armored Divison) the next day, 6 September, that the pressure was relieved on the troops of 2nd and 3rd Battalions. In the meantime 1st Battalion had deployed its Able and Baker companies along the left bank, facing the positions of their colleagues who were under fanatical SS attacks, in order to avoid enemy infiltration on the left bank.
The tanks arrived on the morning of 6 September and the 39th Infantry Regiment now took advantage of the initiative. Bond asked Robert H. Stumpf’s 3rd Battalion to go down to Dinant to liberate the town and its inhabitants, and to secure a new bridgehead. It was 6 hours in the evening and the Love Company’s men, mounted on Sherman tanks, were at the gates of Dinant. The 3rd Battalion would enter the town the next morning and clear the last enemy pockets in two or three hours. Immediately the engineers could work on the bridge, damaged four days earlier by the Gestapo. Although the operation started badly in the 1st Battalion sector, it was nevertheless a success thanks to the initiatives taken by Lt-Col. Stumpf and his battalion.
The 60th I.R. storms the cliffs
In the late afternoon, the 3rd Battalion takes position around Hastière-Lavaux. “Slick’ Wilson takes advantage of the break to return to the regiment to get more precise orders: the crossing will be between Hermeton-sur-Meuse and Blaimont. But the day was drawing to a close and the necessary reconnaissance for such an undertaking had not been carried out, or at least not completely. The assault by boat was launched at midnight, with King Company in the lead. In fifteen minutes, the first wave of boats set off, but in total darkness, the men unknowingly landed on an island and sent the boats away before they realized it. When they realized their mistake, the few soldiers who had landed called out to their comrades on the left bank, which alerted the Germans who opened fire from their positions on top of the cliffs, causing several casualties and destroying some boats.
The division’s staging area near Philippeville had been liberated after two days of fighting by the 60th Infantry Regiment. The day before, on 3 September, Captain Matt Urban, commander of the 2nd Battalion, was shot in the throat while leading his battalion’s attack. For his actions in Normandy and Philippeville he was awarded the Medal of Honor in 1980 by President Jimmy Carter. It was a tired regiment that had to launch the assault on the Meuse. Two columns started towards the east: the 3rd Battalion, commanded by Lt-Col. Keene ‘Slick’ Wilson, took the direction of Hastière, followed by the 1st Battalion. The 2nd Battalion, which saw Lt-Col. Charles taking over as commanding officer, heads for Agimont in order to cross in the vicinity of Heer.
Finally, King Company managed to land on the right bank and took position in the woods south-west of Blaimont, while Item Company deployed on the right to cover the attack on the village. Before sunrise, a platoon of King Company who was controlling the village spotted two Sd.Kdf. 251/16 coming towards 1st Battalion’s positions. These armored vehicles equipped with flame throwers pushed back the infantrymen towards the woods, while at the same time in the village, King Company’s men underwent a violent German counter-attack supported by mortar fire, artillery and some armored vehicles. Without any heavy weapon, the infantrymen of the 3rd Battalion can only bow to the enemy firepower. Blaimont will change hands during the whole day of September 5th, from counter-attack to counter-attack to finally be under the control of King Company in the late afternoon.
Immediately after the German withdrawal, 3rd Battalion advanced northwards to secure a first viable bridgehead at the Hastière-par-Delà bridge, and to allow the engineers to work on it to make it usable for armor. However, the access road crossed a large open area, and Lt-Col. Wilson would then expose its right flank to a new enemy counter-attack. Love Company was chosen, and at Blaimont 81-mm mortars were deployed to cover it. After long hours of fierce fighting, Love Company managed to dislodge the enemy from Hastière-par-Delà around 6 hours in the morning the next day, at which time the engineers went to work to supply the units on the right bank as quickly as possible.
The next attack was launched at 16h15 towards the south-west, where a number of SS had been reported. The objective of this attack was to consolidate and enlarge the bridgehead, in preparation for the regiment’s advance eastwards. Baker Company, 746th Tank Battalion, as well as a platoon of Charley Company, 899th Tank Destroyer Battalion were attached to the 3rd Battalion: ten tanks were part of the attack. The wood where the SS were hiding had been heavily shelled beforehand and the tanks gave them no chance. This last attack was a child’s play, and the mission was accomplished around 8 hours in the evening on 6 September, with 250 SS taken prisoner.
Back in the afternoon of 4 September, during which the 2nd Battalion headed for Agimont. There they meet local resistance fighters who confirm that the Germans are entrenched on the other side of the river. Indeed, beyond the Meuse river, the I. Bataillon and II. Bataillon from SS-Panzergrenadier-Regiment 4 ‘Der Führer’ (2. SS. Panzer-Division “Das Reich”) are solidly entrenched on top of the cliffs. The various observations made it possible to identify numerous armored vehicles regularly moving from the top to the bank and back.
Once again, the essential reconnaissance was not carried out, and night fell when the command had no idea of the terrain on which they would have to fight. As everywhere on the Meuse, the assault was planned for midnight on the night of 4 to 5 September. Easy Company will be in the lead and will cross the Meuse a few meters south of the destroyed Heer bridge. Fox Company will lead the rest of the battalion across the river a little further north. The final objective of the battalion is to take the village of Mesnil-Saint-Blaise five kilometres to the east.
The boats arrived late here again and as soon as the Easy Company’s first boat was afloat, a deluge of fire fell on the helpless GI’s. Although some of them retaliated, the machine gun position was nowhere to be located and the firefight continued for about two hours. At the same time, the other companies to the north crossed unopposed and the decision was taken to move Easy Company across at the same point. On the right bank, high cliffs stood in front of the infantrymen as daylight broke. But the sounds of several dozen – or even hundreds – of men did not go unnoticed, and soon the battalion came under fire. The priority was to take cover and it took several minutes before a path was found to allow the ascent of the cliffs a little further south. But time passed and the Germans positioned new machine guns, decimating the poor unfortunates who could not find shelter.
Confusion reigns, some are isolated and others try to go up the river to eventually find their colleagues of the 3rd Battalion, but without success: the SS have separated the two battalions, and even encircled groups of GI’s in some places. Some escape by swimming, others drown or are captured, it is the debacle for the 2nd Battalion. Their misfortune does not end there, as all radios are lost in the water or damaged: Lt-Col. Charles T. Fort was unable to reach the regiment. Finally, on the evening of 5 September, contact is made with the regiment and the survivors of Easy Company are ordered to stay put and wait: 1st Battalion, 47th Infantry Regiment is activated to break the deadlock.
The intervention of 1st Battalion, 47th Infantry Regiment (followed by its 3rd Battalion too) at about 1 hour in the morning, allowed the small groups of 2nd Battalion, 60th Infantry Regiment to gather in the second part of the night and in the early morning of 6 September, Fox and George Companies, 60th Infantry Regiment resumed their progression eastwards towards Mesnil-Saint-Blaise, while 1st Battalion and 3rd Battalions, 47th Infantry Regiment established a bridgehead around Heer. But to reach Mesnil-Saint-Blaise, the survivors of the 2nd Battalion, 60th Infantry Regiment had to cross an open plain, without any protection. As soon as the first soldiers came out of cover, German artillery decimated them while infantry and armor launched an attack on their left flank. At the end of the day, the 2nd Battalion, 60th Infantry Regiment’s combat strength was at most 40 men. The battalion, deprived of its charismatic leader who had been wounded a few days earlier, was destroyed in a few hours.
The intervention of the 47th Infantry Regiment helped to repel the German attacks that followed and to link up with the 3rd Battalion, 60th Infantry Regiment in position to the north. On 7 September, village clearance operations continued and the division reassembled before continuing to advance towards Germany. The crossing of the Meuse by the brave soldiers of the 9th Infantry Division allowed the whole First U.S. Army to reach the German border in a few days, but at the cost of many lives. The experienced 9th Infantry Division had not suffered such heavy losses since the siege of Cherbourg in late June 1944. The fighting was so fierce that even staff officers were wounded or killed, such as Major Gail H. Brown – commander of 1st Battalion, 60th Infantry Regiment – who died of wounds received on 6 September. Like Operation Torch, the Sicily landings and the Normandy campaign, the crossing of the Meuse will remain a landmark event in the history of the 9th Infantry Division, but also in the history of the US Army.