We're not lost, Sergeant, We're in … France

Visiting the battle box at Montelimar

As I’ve said many times, there is no substitute for walking the ground. Looking at maps, reading unit/battle/campaign histories, or even using my new favorite tool, my tablet, never give you the same understanding as actually being on the ground where the fight took place.

We’re over in France and this time we’ve come to the south. This has given me an opportunity to walk the ground at Montelimar. Before we arrived, I’d contacted retired French Army Colonel Pierre Balliot to see if he could recommend a guide. He volunteered himself, driving 200+ kilometers to show us the ‘battle box’. The Colonel has written a marvelous book, of which I now possess a signed copy, entitled La Drome dans la Guerre: La bataille de Montelimar, which details the battle. So, my wife, our friend Tom and I got a half-day tour of the 20 km by 20 km ‘battle box’ in which Task Force Butler, the 36th Infantry Division and French partisans attempted to block the escape of 130,000 men of the German Army from southern France.

The battle of Montelimar had the same goal as the sealing of the Falaise Pocket in Normandy, trapping an entire Army Group. So, for me, the Battle of Montelimar is the most important action of the campaign.

Walking the ground here, you get a far better sense of why they chose the ground they did, what worked and what did not. The first thing to note is the height of the high ground. While the tablet and Google maps did point out the value of Hill 300, it gave no real sense of the true height or the slope. Somehow, I thought of 300 feet when I read about the Hill. It’s 300 meters or about 1000 feet. The slope is also extreme, making it difficult to dislodge any defenders. The Hill is so tall and long that it completely shields any troops coming up the Rhone valley through that choke point from observation or attack from the east. While there is plenty of high ground north of this, none overlooks such a tight passage as this. Thus, it comes as no surprise that there was tremendous fighting at La Coucourde, where the main road, Route Nationale 7, emerges from behind Hill 300 and where General Truscott had directed General Dahlquist to ‘put the cork in the bottle’, entrapping so many Germans.

Dahlquist and Butler faced many challenges here. The terrain that provided such an opportunity was itself a great challenge. The mountains restricted movement, inhibited communication, and provided endless opportunities for ambush. The narrow roads were difficult for armored vehicles and the slopes a great challenge as well. The vast distance from the landing beaches made resupply slow and the lack of sufficient transport compounded that.

The rivers helped, but not nearly as much as one would think when looking at the map. Walking the ground at the same time of the year, you see how low they are, how much vegetation would conceal movement and how challenging defending along those lines would be. Looking out from Dahlquist’s headquarters you see how broad a front he needed to defend.

Dahlquist himself may have been a part of the problem, never seeming to move fast enough for Truscott’s taste – Truscott flew to his headquarters twice during this campaign to hasten him along.

The few troops that reached the fight first shocked the Germans, but a few hundred men, even at strategic points, can only do so much to stop an Army Group.


Task Force Butler turns to block

According to the history of the 117th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron, on the 19th, Truscott prepared to set his trap at Montelimar, sending Task Force Butler to block the route of escape for the Germans. General Dahlquist of the 36th Infantry Division would receive the orders, but not General Butler.

As we’ve noted, Task Force Butler was an ad hoc unit and the headquarters had no equipment of it’s own. It was simply superimposed and co-located with the 117th’s command group. This meant that communications equipment had to be scrounged and, with the difficulties of communications in mountainous terrain, they were doubly-challenged. (I expect the same problems are experienced in Afghanistan today.) As such, Butler continued acting on his prior orders (which labelled Grenoble as his goal) and reacted to emerging threats (an apparent German threat against Gap). So, Task Force Butler was also not quite prepared to shift toward Montelimar.

“at 2045 hours on August 20th[, 1944], he [Truscott] radioed specific instructions to Butler directing him to move to Montelimar at dawn with all possible speed. He was to seize the town and block the German routes of withdrawal. The 36th division would follow the Task force ASAP. Truscott then sent Lt. Col. Conway of his G-3 Section with more specific written instructions, instructing Butler to seize the high ground immediately north of Montelimar before dark that day, but not the city itself.”

While the history indicates that Butler gathered his troops at “Apres” before heading west to Crest, I suspect they mean Aspres-sur-Buëch located just north of Sisteron and at an intersection of roads heading to Sisteron, Gap, Grenoble and Crest. Butler basically had only his reconnaissance squadron (and not all of that) to send west.

Crossing the DromeBy afternoon, C/117 had attacked from Crest toward the Rhone near Livron, destroying a convoy of over 50 vehicles and sowing panic among those troops. B/117 would move into the heights along the N-7 highway, providing them a vast shooting gallery as the German 19th Army retreated northward. Unfortunately, this meant General Butler had two reconnaissance troops (with his third, “A” Troop hurrying over from the deployment to Gap) and some artillery to face every German stationed in the south of France. The mountainous terrain and rivers would aid him, but the odds were against them.

As MAJ Volpe’s map indicates, Butler’s men were spread widely as the Germans came streaming north, with most of the weight in the still-intact 11th Panzer Division.

Task Force Butler activated, 69 years ago

At 9:40am on the 17th of August 1944, the German High Command had authorized Army Group G to retreat northward to better defensive positions. Due to an ULTRA intercept, VI Corps commander, Major General Lucian Truscott, actually received the order 5 hours later, well before the German commander, General Blaskowitz. Truscott, a cavalryman by training, was ready for this.

Since the beginning of August, he’d planned on using the town of Montelimar as a choke point to trap German troops in the southern Rhone valley. In order to accomplish, Truscott knew his best tool would be a Combat Command from an Armored Division (about a third of such a division). He’d requested the allocation of a Combat Command in the planning process, but no American Combat Command was readily available. Combat Command Sudre’, part of the French Army supplied by Americans and part of the invasion plan, would be available to Truscott for just three days to hold off an expected German armored counter-attack at the landing beaches. Truscott knew that the 250-mile route to Montelimar was not an option for that unit (even given the wildly successful reality of the landings, CC Sudre’ would never have ventured far north in the few days it was allocated to VI Corps).

Knowing he wouldn’t have a true Combat Command available, Truscott went about creating his own. First, he assigned his Assistant Corps Commander, BG Fred Butler, to command the ad hoc unit. Butler had no separate command staff to draw upon, so he was allocated staff officers (generally, the deputy in each role) from the Corps command. Those officers then were combined with the command staff of his main unit, the 117th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron. The combination of units that they designated as Task Force Butler provided similar force to an armored Combat Command, though lighter in tanks and half-tracks, but heavier in armored cars and jeeps.

So, on 17 August, Truscott ordered Task Force Butler to become operational and the units began gathering at Le Muy for the rapid advance to Montelimar.

For a detailed analysis of Task Force Butler, see MAJ Mike Volpe’s Master’s Thesis, Task Force Butler: A Case Study In The Employment Of An Ad Hoc Unit In Combat Operations, During Operation Dragoon, 1-30 August 1944.

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