The Allies’ Strong Stand Atop Mortain
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The Allies’ Strong Stand Atop Mortain

WWII

The Allies’ Strong Stand Atop Mortain

Seven hundred GIs held the high ground against Germany’s attempt to cut off General George S. Paton’s Third Army.

Seven hundred GIs held the high ground against Germany’s attempt to cut off General George S. Paton’s Third Army.

by Kevin Hymel

A German SS officer, holding a white flag of truce, walked through the American lines and up to a tall lieutenant from Texas. Surrounded for three days, the Americans were outnumbered four to one with little hope of relief. “your situation is hopeless,” explained the German, adding that if the Americans did not surrender, they would be “blown to bits.”

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Around them lay wounded Americans, many suffering with gangrene. Other soldiers—dirty, hungry, and thirsty—hunkered down in foxholes or behind boulders. Smoking hulks of tanks littered the battlefield; blackened craters and bare tree trunks covered the ground. The American lieutenant weighed the offer for a second before delivering a curt response: “Go fuck yourself.”

Old Hickory in Mortain

In the week of August 1944, the Germans were on the attack in Normandy. After being pushed off the D-Day beaches by Lt. Gen. Omar Bradley’s First Army and suffering a rupture in their lines by Lt. Gen. George S. Patton Jr.’s Third Army, the Germans launched a counteroffensive of four Panzer divisions to smash the American lines and capture the vital French coastal town of Avranches, where General Patton’s tanks poured into the Continent.

An hour after midnight on August 7, 1944, more than 50,000 German troops and 300 tanks advanced westward. The 2nd SS Panzer Division targeted Mortain, a small town 20 miles directly east of Avranches. In the way of this Armored assault stood the 30th Infantry Division, an American National Guard unit that landed a month earlier in Normandy. Called the Old Hickory Division in honor of President Andrew Jackson, the 30th had just replaced the 1st Infantry Division at Mortain a day earlier and barely had time to dig in before the Germans struck.

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