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.



Forgotten Operation? Not by these men….

This past week I had Christmas in August. When I went to Normandy in June, I imagined that I would be surrounded by veterans and that I would be able to directly interact with them nearly constantly. I also assumed that I’d be able to find a way to volunteer some of my time while we were there to help some of these men out with mundane logistical or creature comforts during our visit. Sadly, it didn’t turn out like that at all. I did see a few veterans, but got little personal time with them (what interaction I did have was fantastic and emotionally moving for me) and found that the few people we asked about providing help already had it covered.

So, when word reached me that there was going to be an Operation Dragoon event in Arlington during the first few days of August, I immediately reached out to CPT Monika Stoy (USA-Ret) to see if I could help. It was the best idea I’d had in a long time.

The event was being put on by Outpost Europe of the Society of the 3rd Infantry Division, which meant that CPT Stoy and her husband, COL Tim Stoy, threw themselves and a few volunteers vigorously into it without knowing if anyone would help. I provided only a tiny bit of assistance, but got back far more than I could have imagined possible.

When I arrived late on Tuesday afternoon to see what I could do to help, Monika welcomed me and Tim started showing me the materials they’d gathered for display. While we were looking at some photos, COL Morton Katz wandered up and pointed out Doc Alden (Battalion Surgeon, 509 PIB) in the photo, at which point Tim explained that the reason he recognized COL Katz  was because the fellow standing next to Doc Alden. I was very quietly stunned, as Doyle Yardley’s diaries (see my initial blog entry) remark frequently on Doc Alden’s amorous escapades. It got better when the gentleman standing next to COL Katz turned out to be COL Bill Yarborough’s son, Lee. My head was practically spinning as Lee took me to the front of the room to show off the poster made for his father, which showed the beret and Special Forces knife that he introduced. Then, Lee gave me a coin. It’s the unit coin for the LTG William P. Yarborough Chapter of the Special Forces Association. Quickly, I was invited to dinner and treated as a member of the group. Heady stuff for an amateur historian who never served.

One of our local Boy Scouts, COL Martin Katz, John Devanie and Mrs Katz next to the Audie Murphy memorial

One of our local Boy Scouts, COL Morton Katz, John Devanie and Mrs Katz next to the Audie Murphy memorial.

The next 24 hours were terrific. I showed up a few minutes late for my morning task of helping to transport the colors for the various units over to the amphitheatre at Arlington National Cemetery, but they’d managed to sort things out without me. Curse my lack of punctuality for that. It did, however, give me a chance to hover around the lobby while I awaited the return of our organizers. So, I spoke to Lee Yarborough again, as well as a Colonel and Command Sergeant Major from the 36th Infantry Division. As the veterans gathered, I wandered over and started to chat with COL Katz and John Devanie, who served in the 509th starting with the Avellino drop. I was able to chat with the both of them on and off all day, then got them both to autograph my copy of COL Yardley’s diaries, since it is the only book that I have on the 509th right now.

As a former Scoutmaster, I was overjoyed that a number of Boy Scouts were in attendance and, since I’m used to working with Scouts, I took multiple opportunities to provide encouragement to them, so that they would interact more with the veterans. I remember walking from the 3rd Division memorial to the Audie Murphy memorial and listening to one of the veterans asking his Scout “guide” how his work on his Eagle was going. The veteran explained that there were 21 merit badges required (there still are), but that there were no Eagle Projects back then. His own sons made Eagle and he knew how hard the project was for Scouts. I’m never sure whether Scouts understand how amazing some of the opportunities that being a Scout provides, but I know that having an adult express interest in their progress always makes a difference. That probably magnifies a lot when the interested adult is a hero, and these men are heroes. I may follow up with some of the units so that these guys can get a handle on exactly who the veterans were. Certainly, visiting Audie Murphy’s gravesite had to impress any of them who’ve studied military history, but I’m guessing that none of them knew much in advance about Operation Dragoon.

Donald G. "George" Spears (F/2/517) and his wife

Don G. “George” Spears (F/2/517) and his wife

From the remove of 65 years, details often escape these men. On the other hand, some details never leave you. I asked George Spears during lunch about his unit and his recollections of his D-Day. I wondered if the drop was as screwed up like the one in Normandy, so I asked how long it was before he hooked up with other paratroopers. George said he hadn’t even gotten out of his harness and started assembling his rifle before an officer and a group of men came along the road. He said that you would recognize the officers from other units even if you didn’t know their names, so he joined up with them and spent the next four days as a runner at the Regimental Command Post. They’d lie around near the command post resting, waiting for an assignment, then, when called, head wherever they needed to go. We sat with a few soldiers from Fort Myer, including Specialist Nevarez who served in the 173rd Airborne Brigade in Italy and had one tour in Iraq. George was honest to a fault, relating when he simply couldn’t remember something. I truly enjoyed our lunch together, especially seeing how much his wife and he look after each other. As I lingered after lunch, I found George’s photo in his uniform posted along the walls, and, you know, he hasn’t changed all that much. Don Spears during WWII(Vimeo of George Spears)

I also got a chance to compliment COL Laura Richardson, who serves as the commander of the Fort Myer Military Community, having served as a Battalion Commander in Operation Iraqi Freedom. I pointed out that she wear jump wings, served in the 101st and was awarded the Bronze Star. I fumbled and said it was two Bronze Stars, though that does leave out a whole host of other awards and decorations. Of course, since Don was a paratrooper, it was probably unnecessary for me to point out the jump wings. I’d listened to the Colonel speak at the Inter-Service Club Council annual luncheon, held at the Army-Navy Country Club and had become an instant admirer.

During the Tuesday evening historical panel, a number of veterans went up to the front of the room and recounted some of their experiences very briefly. One veteran spoke about a German column they trapped outside Montelimar. The Germans were falling back, with horse-drawn carts, since they had few vehicles. He related that someone had destroyed the head of the convoy and they called in airstrikes that devastated the column. One of the veterans came up to ask about Montelimar later and said he didn’t remember any of that. Historian John McManus was on the panel and asked a few questions. McManus found out that the veteran had been in a Sergeant Connor’s squad (SGT Connor apparently had some incredible exploits on the day of the invasion, though all our veteran could remember was being guided around the minefields by a French partisan when they landed), so in all likelihood, the horror of the devastation of that convoy has blotted the incident from his memory. During our luncheon, an engineer spoke about the terrifying cleanup, which included not just German soldiers, but also many horses and French camp-followers who were retreating with the Germans.

Sometimes, when they spoke of their friends who never came home from southern France, or who didn’t survive the Battle of the Bulge, they paused. Chins would waver and their eyes would get misty. Not a day goes by that these men don’t remember Operation Dragoon, but in our focus on everything else, we sometimes forget. One gentleman recalled that when his Division was preparing to ship back to England later in the war, they were waiting alongside another unit that had fought in Normandy. One of those soldiers, seeing an unfamiliar Division patch shouted out, derisively,  “Where were you guys on D-Day?” The 3rd Division troops, which had landed in North Africa, Sicily, Salerno, Anzio and southern France (5 D-Days!) and responded, “Which one?”

Though my own research will generally focus on Normandy, I will endeavor to remember the efforts of these and other men whose efforts have not been hailed so luminously.




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