Note to Readers: As this week (June 6, 2019) marks the 75th anniversary of D-Day, the Herald-Leader remembers the sacrifice of local veterans. The following story about a soldier from Miles, who served in the allied invasion during World War II, is being recounted here. The story was written by the late Robert Melvold (also a WWII veteran) and first appeared in the Bellevue Herald-Leader over two decades ago.
In 1970, Reynold and Elizabeth Erichson, a Miles area farm couple, reluctantly put off for a later time that trip to Europe that they had been planning so long for that summer.
This wouldn’t have been just another sightseeing trip to Europe by just any vacationing couple. They had some specific places they wanted to go and see, and for good reason.
Reynold had looked forward for years to showing Elizabeth where he had landed on Omaha Beach in June 1944. But even more, he looked forward to their then motoring slowly 40 miles inland, this time peacefully. He would show her the now-restored French villages that he had passed through decades before under far different circumstances.
And he would especially want for both of them to see the village of Mortain, and its adjoining Hill 317. It was there, on Aug. 6-12, 1944, that he had played a major hero’s role in a pivotal battle won by his 30th Division forces over four German Panzer divisions.
Leapfrogged D-Day forces
It was on D-Day plus 6 that the American 30th Division, which included Capt. Erichson’s 2nd Battalion of the 120th Infantry Regiment, landed on Omaha Beach. They were given the task of continuing the advance inland while the troop units that made the original assault were being rested and regrouped. The 30th had a bloody assignment, advancing hedgerow by hedgerow, facing continuous fire from German artillery, tanks, machine guns and snipers.
In that summer of 1970, 26 years later, with the cattle peacefully grazing in the pastures between the hedgerows, and the grain crop maturing, it would have seemed incredible that these once were fields of mass destruction and killing.
The countless blasted tanks and other discarded weapons long ago had been removed and melted into the making of less warlike products.
The bodies of the men who had died in those fields and hedgerows were now in the row after row of graves in both the nearby German and the several Allied military cemeteries.
And countless more, who were wounded but survived, were destined to go through life as severely handicapped, many as lifelong wards of their country’s veterans hospitals.
Mortain visit high point
The visit to Mortain and Hill 317 would have been the high point of the trip, even though Reynold and Elizabeth no doubt would have continued to follow the battlefield trails of his 30th Division comrades all the way through northern France and to within the borders of Germany itself, where the 30th was located at the time of the May 1945 German surrender and the suicide of Adolf Hitler.
It was back at Hill 317 that Capt. Erichson, as the ranking surviving officer of his 2nd Battalion, 120th Infantry Regiment, held off continuous attacks by German tanks, artillery and infantry for six days and nights. It retained for the Allies the indispensable observation point from where they could direct a rain of artillery fire from more than 100 of their big guns on concentrations of German Panzer divisions armor attempting to break through the American roadblocks.
Despite being surrounded and suffering heavy losses, Capt. Erichson refused to accept a German invitation to surrender, issued under a “flag of truce,” combined with a threat of annihilation if not accepted.
Even the many wounded soldiers, some enduring pain for days without proper medical care, implored Erichson not to surrender. They did so despite the German officer’s offer, in excellent English, to provide the wounded with prompt medical care and safe passage to a “comfortable” prisoner-of-war camp.
Panzers slowed at Hill 317
ln the end the Hitler-ordered thrust by four of his veteran Panzer divisions bogged down at the base of Hill 317.
Hitler’s plan to drive the Allied armies all the way back to Omaha Beach had failed. There were 700 officers and men at the start of those six days and nights who were a part of Erichson’s “lost battalion” on Hill 317.
When the German forces finally backed off, Capt. Erichson led the total of only 357, including the walking wounded, off the hill and down to the village of Mortain, which had been demolished by shelling from both sides.
Medics rushed to provide bandages, splints, morphine and evacuation for the seriously wounded scattered all over the slope, both German and American. Working parties removed the several hundred torn German and American bodies for temporary burial, many of whom died in the exchange of grenades, in hand-to-hand combat or from the frequent artillery barrages directed by both sides.
Erichson decorated for valor
The 2nd Battalion of the 120th Infantry Regiment was given the cherished Presidential Unit Citation for its defense of Hill 317. And Capt. Erichson received the Army’s Distinguished Service Award, second only in prestige to the Medal of Honor. He also received the Croix de Guerre from the French government. For a separate deed of valor at a different time, he also was awarded the Bronze Star, and at another time he was awarded a Purple Heart for an injury when he was struck by enemy shrapnel.
Thus it is especially tragic that Reynold never revisited the now peaceful, pastoral scenes at and near a restored Mortain, and to act as a guide to Elizabeth and to their then (by 1970) adult twin daughters, Laurel and Leah.
The girls were born in 1947.
Merit leave for marriage
By January 1945, the 30th Division and its 120th Infantry Regiment had made their way, in those five months since Hill 317, all the way through northern France to Aachen and the border of Germany. It was then that Reynold was given a merit leave to come home and fulfill his longstanding goal of marrying Elizabeth Pedersen, his Miles High School classmate, the girl who was living on the farm across the road.
Then after a too-brief honeymoon it was back to the 30th Division for Reynold, who by then had been promoted to major.
Daughter Laurel vividly recalls that 1970 was a bad year economically for Iowa farmers. Those engaged in raising and feeding prime beef cattle, such as the Erichsons and many Miles area neighbors, were especially hard hit.
There was a double whammy of low cattle prices and a poorer-than-average harvest.
So Reynold and Elizabeth reluctantly decided to put off the trip until a better year. Even though they could have scraped up the money, they thought it just wouldn’t have looked right to others, taking an expensive trip to Europe at a time like that.
Better year not in time
That “better year” for which they delayed the trip never came. In 1972, just two years later, Reynold began experiencing severe medical problems. The Mayo Clinic discovered a brain tumor.
There was surgery and trips back and forth during the next five years in attempts to halt the cancer. Reynold had some good spells when he was able to do farm work, and some bad spells when he couldn’t.
Laurel and Leah and their respective husbands, Don and Gregg, came to the farm weekends from their respective occupational responsibilities at the time in Lancaster, Wis., and Dubuque, to help out.
John Mommsen Jr., a nearby neighbor with whom Reynold had always shared farm work, helped a great deal during that long period of caring for Reynold’s medical problems.
Elizabeth took care of her proud soldier at home until some final days of hospitalization in the beginning of June 1977.
Reynold died on June 14 of that year, the nation’s Flag Day.
Services for Major Reynold C. Erichson were held at the Miles Presbyterian Church on June 17, with the Miles American Legion post conducting military burial rites at the Miles Cemetery.
Feats publicized in 1992 book
The feats of the Captain Erichson’s command were best publicized in a book written by Alwyn Featherston and published in 1992. It is titled, “Saving the Breakout, the 30th Division’s Historic Stand at Mortain, August 7-12, 1944.”
Featherston wrote that when Hitler’s blitzkrieg crashed into Poland in September 1939, the entire U.S. Army, including its then-Army Air Corps, consisted of three skeleton divisions comprising 188,000 men. Poland had 52 army divisions totaling 2.5 million men, yet its defenses lasted less than a month.
In his book, Featherston told that Reynold Erichson, who would play a major role at Mortain, was working on his family farm near Miles when Hitler first unleashed his Panzer divisions.
The former high school basketball star, was a tall, blond young man of 20, “more interested in the girl next door than in the news from Europe.”
Featherston went on to relate what several other young men were doing at the time of the 1939 blitzkrieg, who would, with Erichson, emerge as the decorated heroes of the battle of Mortain and its Hill 317.
To be more exact, Elizabeth Pedersen, who became Mrs. Reynold Erichson, wasn’t technically “the girl next door.” She was the girl living with her parents on the farm located to the north, across the road from the homestead that had been in the Erichson family for several generations. She and Reynold were members of the Miles High School class of 1937. They rode the school bus together.
Volunteers after pearl harbor
Reynold voluntered for Army duty a month after the Dec. 7, 1941 Pearl Harbor raid. He was soon selected for an Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning, Ga. After several training camp stints, he was assigned to the 120th Infantry Regiment, which became a part of the reorganized 30th Division.
Next came Army maneuvers in Tennessee, where his units were credited with “knocking out enemy battalions.” It was a part of two years of intensive training and equipping, preparing them for what they eventually would face.
In February 1944, the 30th Divison embarked on a convoy for England. Its units included several regiments of infantry, a tank battalion, a tank destroyer battalion, an anti-aircraft battalion, four battalions of field artillery, a signal company, a medical company and the headquarters organization.
The ships bearing Erichson’s 120th Infantry Regiment sailed up the Clyde River to Glasgow, Scotland, past the big shipyards that had built Britain’s ocean liners and were now busy, despite bombings, in the building of more of its ships designed for combat or for hauling cargo or troops.
Other units landed at Liverpool and Bristol further south. By April the Division was assembled together in a training area north of the London suburbs, at Chesham.
Adjusting to wartime Britain
The official history of the 30th Division comments that the men “adjusted themselves to the wartime weakness of British beer...and the endless pitfalls of trying to keep warm in the wintertime without central heating.
They sense they were closer to the war, as they were in a land being bombed. They restored their fine edge of endurance by marching and marching.
Artillery practice firing was hampered by the limited range.
As the calendar moved closer to June, Erichson and his regiment could see more and more rows of tanks, trucks and mountains of tarpaulin-covered supplies being accumulated for the invasion.
But when D-Day arrived on June 6, the 30th Division was still held in reserve, in Southampton.
The main body came ashore at Omaha Beach, on the night of June 13-14, led by Erichson’s 120th Infantry. The only casualties in the crossing or landing came when an LST (landing ship, tank) carrying some of the guns and personnel of the division’s artillery battalion struck a mine that had been laid the previous night by German E-boats.
The ship survived, but 30 men were lost and several of the artillery pieces were damaged.
Once ashore and past the shallow beachhead, the 30th found itself immediately involved in heavy fighting.
49 straight days of combat
The anticipated garrison defense of the Germans had been accidentally augmented by the veteran German 352nd Division, based farther west, at St. Lo. It had been maneuvering closer to Omaha Beach as part of an anti-invasion drill.
During the remainder of June, through all of July, and early August Erichson’s 120th Battalion and its counterparts inched their way through miles of German-infested hedgerows and endured deadly fire by both heavy artillery and rifle fire in the crossing of several streams.
Its engineers suffered heavy casualties while blasting openings in the hedgerows that would allow the American tanks to proceed.
The 30th Division had been in close combat with the enemy for 49 consecutive days when it reached the village of Tessy-sur-Vire. It took the town by destroying several German tanks and driving out the remainder.
A receipt of 1,200 replacement troops, covering some of their losses, brought the 120th and another infantry regiment back up to near its complement of 3,057 men and 157 officers each.
Suffered heavy mortality
The 120th had lost both its original commander and executive officer in the battles over hedgerows and the small French villages. Company commanders noted that some of their replacement infantrymen were on their roster for only three days or less before being stricken from the rolls as deceased or having been evacuated to the rear for treatment of wounds.
It was a harrowing 49 days.
Finally, with another American division now protecting its front, the 120th Infantry Regiment and the other 30th Division units enjoyed Aug. 3 and 4 as days of showers, rest and relaxation. Clean uniforms were issued and there was hot food.
As the book on the Mortain breakout tells, Red Cross clubmobiles staffed with attractive American girls passed out coffee and doughnuts.
Finally baths and movies
A barn was converted into a movie theater where they showed a succession of audiences “Best Foot Forward,” featuring Lucille Ball and June Allyson. Tough-guy actor Edward G. Robinson headed the cast in a USO show.
The paymaster distributed some payroll in French currency for the first time since they left England. This made the shopkeepers in Tessy happy also.
On the night of Aug. 5 the 30th Division received orders to take positions in the newly established front lines. The division’s 117th and 119th Infantry battalions were directed to advance to the village of St. Barthelmy.
Erichson’s 120th was directed to proceed two miles further, to Mortain. They went by trucks, and it was the first time in France they had gotten to ride. But with all of the traffic and the French civilians out to welcome them, it was more like a slow parade.
When the 120th reached Mortain late in the afternoon, guides of the 1st Division led them to the assigned positions they would be taking over.
Mortain had been liberated from what were then retreating German forces, on Aug. 3, by an infantry regiment of the 1st Division. Officers of the French resistance urged the American soldiers to seize the adjoining Hill 317 without delay, which they did.
First priority: Hill 317
When Maj. Gen. Lawton Collins arrived, the first thing he did was to point to Hill 317. The report of its occupation was welcome news when received by Gen. Omar Bradley. Bradley was commanding the 12th Army Group, which included Gen. George Patton’s Third Army as well as the 30th and other Divisions.
From studying the maps, Bradley was well aware that Hill 317 would be vital in defending against any potential German counter attacks.
When Col. Hammond Birks, now commanding the 120th, arrived in Mortain on the pleasant Saturday afternoon of Aug. 5, it seemed as if his regiment would be enjoying some more rest. The shops were open and the little hotels and their bars in the village of 1,600 population were full.
The villagers, along with the American troops, were celebrating the fact that their town had been freed with no damage from either artilley shelling or door-to-door street fighting. A lone shell had landed in a vegetable garden but had not exploded.
In the coming days they would find their celebration was premature. By 10 days later they would find few walls or roofs still standing in Mortain.
Birk assigned Erichson’s 2nd Battalion of the 120th to occupy Hill 317. Lt. Col. Eads Hardaway, his 2nd Battalion commander, reinforced by a unit from the 3rd Battalion, was to occupy the town itself and establish artillery and tank-manned road blocks north and south, as well.
Headquarters in hotel
Lt. Col. Hardaway established his headquarters in the Grand Hotel in Mortain while his phone network was being connected, giving him communications on lines strung up Hill 317 as well as to the roadblocks and other strategic defensive points.
Officers of the 1st Division predicted that the 120th had nothing to fear. The Germans now would not stop retreating until they were beyond their Rhine River.
The only ominous sign during the afternoon of Aug. 5, while Capt. Erichson and his battalion were digging in, was a straffing raid by German FW 190s. The planes almost scraped the top of Hill 317.
They may have been the same Focke-Wolf unit that raked a truck convoy carrying another 30th Division infantry unit, destroying five of the vehicles and causing more than 50 casualties.
While members of Capt. Erichson’s F Company and others were digging in, they noted that other German planes were aloft, but those aircraft obviously were doing only reconnaissance. From one standpoint, it was a relief not being shot at or bombed.
However, it stood to reason the Germans wouldn’t be botheringwith new photos of Mortain and Hill 317 unless they might be using them in a forthcoming assault.
Deepening the foxholes
So the 120th Battalion kept deepening the shallow foxholes left by the 1st Division units despite the lst Division’s assurance they likely would never need them.
During that first afternoon, they had been given no vehicles for carrying up the steep hill more machine guns and larger quantities of ammunition, food and medical supplies. At the time it didn’t seem as though that omission was that important.
But as the next six days and nights on the hill wore on, there was a desperate need for fresh batteries to power the transmitters used by the artillery observers to communicate with their units based at numerous sites adjacent to Mortain.
The generals of the Allied Army didn’t know as yet what Hitler had in mind. Still holding on to his belief that the beach invasions just north of Cherbourg were just a diversion before a crossing at Calais, Hitler had held his main army units in France in reserve.
He left his Berghof mountaintop hideout once to confer with Gen. Erwin Rommel and Field Marshal Gerd Von Rundstedt at Rheims.
Generals were pessimistic
Hitler was shocked by their pessimism. Through aerial photos, his generals had seen the number of fresh troops and the number of tanks, vehicles and materials that the Allies were getting ashore over the then-protected beaches and the Cherbourg harbor.
With the Russians advancing on the eastern front as well, there would still be tremendous losses for each side, but the German generals could see that the outcome was inevitable.
With Hitler out of the way, Rommel and many other would have sued for peace.
Hitler was nearly gone. He miraculously survived the “briefcase bombing event” at a conference at Rastenburg. Hitler became well aware that many of his high-ranking officers were in on the plot. And after that, he didn’t trust any of them.
Shortly after meeting with Hitler, Rommel was injured when British fighters strafed the car he was riding in. Rommel went home to his family and died a mysterious death soon after that. It was considered to have been a Hitler-prompted suicide.
Von Rundstedt was replaced with Field Marshal Gunther von Kluge as the commander of forces facing the Allied forces in France.
Before the July 20 bomb plot attack on Hitler, it had been difficult for the German generals to argue strategy with Hitler. And as author Alwyn Featherston relates, now it was impossible.
Von Kluge knew of plot
This was particularly true in von Kluge’s case. He had had previous knowledge of the conspirators’ plot and knew he might be implicated at any time. Von Kluge had already drawn up plans to move the German armies and their Panzer armored units closer to the German borders.
Scrapping his longheld concept that the Normandy landings were merely a diversion for a major landing at the closest channel crossing at Calais, Hitler dictated his new plan.
That plan was to give Hill 317 a measure of immortality in the history of the American armed forces.
Hitler promised von Kluge reinforcements for his 15th Army.
In an operation Hitler named Luttich, he promised von Kluge that he would assemble eight Panzer Divisions. They would cut off the Allied forces in the Cherbourg peninsula and roll north to defeat the Allied forces already ashore in Normandy.
Von Kluge knew that Hitler’s plan was not realistic in view of the total strength of the British, Canadian and American ground forces, combined with the Allies’ superior air power.
However, he modified Hitler’s plan and cloaked his revisions from Hitler as best he could.
1st Panzer Division
He did have, in the lst and 2nd Panzer divisions, two of the most experienced and best units in their army. The 1st was named the Liebstandarte Adolf Hitler. It had tasted its first blood against the Poles in 1939. It had been responsible for more than 30,000 Russian casualties and the destruction of 600 Russian tanks, 300 artillery pieces and 1,200 anti-tank guns. It was back at full strength.
H-hour for this major German attack on the 30th Division was about 11 on the night of Aug. 6. At about midnight a forward observer of one of the U.S. 30th Divisions artillery battalions heard tanks moving on a road paralleling the See River where it bends south toward St. Barthelmy and Mortain.
The two towns are only two miles apart.
At first it was assumed they were friendly forces, but it was quickly found out otherwise. Thus the American artillery opened up in the dark with a dozen 105 mm. guns at ranges of up to 5,000 yards. Within an hour tanks of the 1st German Panzer Division, accompanied by dismounted battalions of infantry, were attacking all along the 30th Division front.
By 1:25 a.m. Capt. Erichson’s 2nd Battalion, on Hill 317, reported receiving small-arms fire from the east. Within minutes, the Deutchland regiment of the 2nd SS Panzer Division had swept out of Foret de Mortain, at the base of Hill 317 and moved into the town itself.
Night battle in Mortain
The commander of the American 120th Infantry sent Lt. Albert Smith’s Company C to re-establish contact with the 2nd Battalion command post, at Mortain’s Grand Hotel, clean out the town and re-establish the roadblock south of Hill 317.
That was a formidable task for less than 200 riflemen. They were soon fighting for their lives and Lt. Smith was one of several members of his unit killed.
The battle in the fog and darkness was somewhat illuminated by the burning buildings.
Lt. Col. Eads Hardaway, at the command post, soon realized they would be having great difficulty re-establishing access to Hill 317 for the purpose of reinforcing and resuppying their forces there. So as Alwyn Featherston’s book said, “If the 2nd Battalion of the 120th Regiment wasn’t in a tight spot in the predawn hours of August 7, it is hard to imagine what a tight spot would have been.”
Panzer grenadiers were pouring into Mortain, with armored columns behind them. Squad-size units were beginning to infiltrate Hill 317, threatening the three American unconnected companies of the 120th that were defending its heights. While up on the hill, Capt. Erichson, commander of Company F, found the phone network no longer was working.
Counter attack clears hill
Lt. Joe Reaser, commanding K Company, knew that German soldiers were trying to infiltrate between his company and Company E. However, he mistakenly thought it was only 15 or 20 men, merely probing their positions.
The Germans failed to gain the high ground in that pre-dawn era, when surprise and darkness favored them. As author Featherston points out, that was their fatal mistake. A few squads of Panzer grenadiers had infiltrated the south and west slopes of the hill.
However, a dawn counterattack by G Company cleared the height in hand to hand combat.
A jeep climbed the hill, bringing the three companies one load of supplies just after dawn. The driver insisted on unloading fast and returning immediately before the German troops he had seen were able to cut off his return route.
German Officer Captured
At the base of the hill, German tanks were rolling by. Pvt. Paul Nethery and his squad were hidden within a few feet of their path. Following the tanks came a German officer in a small open car.
The officer stopped opposite them, apparently to study his map. Then as Nethery told it, the officer saw some movement. He pulled out a pistol and hit Nethery with a bullet that penetrated his helmet and grazed his skull. Nethery, in turn, shot the officer in leg, who returned the fire and hit Nethery in the thigh this time.
With the tanks long past, the squad evacuated both Nethery and the German officer up the hill, where they laid together. He learned the German officer was an artillery observer.
He spoke excellent English and told Nethery that Hitler was a great man, but admitted that the Allies were going to win the war. Later in the day the German officer was killed by a German artillery shell, but Nethery survived.
Cut off from supplies of even K-rations, the men of the 120th dug potatoes and picked cabbages from the garden of a small farm on the hill. Green apples from an orchard provided some nourishment and moisture.
Water was another problem and had to be secured from a well that was under enemy fire.
Late in their siege, the Air Force attempted parachute drops of supplies. At first they attempted it with two small, slower planes that would afford a more accurate drop. However, it made them an easier target for the German anti-aircraft fire. One was shot down and the other was badly hit without being able to make the drop.
Later they used C-47s, protected by Thunderbolt fighters that strafed the German positions as the cargo planes were making the drop. But because of the wind and other complications, few of the bundles landed in Allied hands.
None of them included the badly needed morphine and the batteries for the transmitters of the artillery observers.
By the afternoon of Aug. 7, German Gen. von Kluge was ready to admit that Hitler’s Operation Luttich was a failure.
The units of the 30th Division were providing too much resistance over a wide front, with Mortain in the center. However, Hitler insisted von Kluge continue to prosecute the attack.
He ordered the II Panzer Corps of three divisions to be withdrawn from the area facing the British further north and be thrown into the Mortain sector. Hitler also accused von Kluge of bungling the attack.
Bradley used Hill 317 as bait
American Gen. Omar Bradley saw the Germans’ continuance of the attack in the Mortain area as a chance to cut off the retreat avenue for several German divisions. The challenge for the Germans of occupying Hill 317 was the bait to keep them there long enough to cut them off.
Down in the valley below Hill 317, the American tank and tank destroyer battalions were confronting their German counterparts at Mortain and on roads leading to all of the nearby French villages.
Conditions were a bit better on Hill 317 by the morning of Aug. 10. In his book, Featherston said there was only sporadic shelling and occasional sniper fire. By Aug. 9, Hitler had turned over the responsibility for a new German attack in the Mortain area to Gen. Heinrich Eberbach. It didn’t take Eberbach long to know that Hitler’s plan for an Aug. 11 attack had no chance of success. He had only 75 Mark IV tanks and 47 Panthers, less than was available for the failed attempt six days before.
He needed more tanks, ammunition and fuel. And with the dominance of Allied air power, any attack had to be launched in the dark.
Hitler, on the basis of overwhelming evidence provided by Eberbach and other generals in the Normandy front, reluctantly decided to call off the Mortain attack and send his forces defending other fronts along the Allies’ road to Paris.
German traffic moves away
On Friday, Aug. 11, the observers on Hill 317 saw the sun come up and then detected German traffic moving east, away from Mortain. Their artillery observers directed fire at the retreating vehicles.
Burning enemy columns could be seen in all directions. But, in turn, German artillery was still being directed at Hill 317. The Panzer grenadiers, dug in at the base of the hill, still kept up sniper fire. It prevented Erichson’s infantrymen from still safely reaching that well for the water they so badly needed.
Col. Birks of the 120th Regiment considered loading several Sherman tanks with supplies and having them make a solo dash up the hill.
The adjacent 117th Regiment wouldn’t be able to help. It had suffered enough problems in the retaking of St. Barthelmy. Its troops were just too tired and depleted. They had only 167 “effectives” remaining in the three rifle companies, each with a normal complement of 212 men.
It was calculated it would cost too many casualties to break through the German units at the base of the hill. When asked how desperate the situation was for him, Capt. Erichson replied that he was sure his forces could hold out one more day. On that next morning of Aug. 12, only a few German snipers remained as a rear guard in Mortain, and in neighboring towns such as St. Barthelmy.
Rescuing the wounded
At Barthelmy’s tiny hotel the Germans had pulled out their lightly wounded, but had left the seriously wounded, both Germans and Americans. At once it was apparent the Germans were gone.
Thus a 30th Division quartermaster company loaded a truck with food, water and medical supplies and dashed up the hill. Ambulances followed. Taken by air, many of the wounded were back in a hospital in England later that same day or the next day.
The 30th Division’s report on the six days of the battle recorded 1,834 casualties, dead, wounded and missing. As noted previously, of the 700 men on Hill 317, 357 were able to walk off. This included many walking wounded.
Gen. von Kluge was Mortain’s last casualty. After being relieved on Aug. 19 by Field Marshal Walter Model, he wrote a frank letter to Hitler.
He accepted blame for the failure but criticized Hitler for not realizing the full measure of Allied superiority. He closed with an appeal to end the war.
Then von Kluge left his headquarters and committed suicide by swallowing a capsule of potassium cyanide.
Hitler’s Panzers deciminated
Hill 317 was more than a defensive victory, as Featherston pointed out. It gave the Allied high command time to organize and spring a trap that would liberate France by the end of August. Mortain, St. Barthelmy and Hill 317 were cast as indelible names in the history of valiant accomplishments by America’s armed forces.
The deciphering by the British of the German military’s radio traffic, following the Panzer divisions’ withdrawal from Mortain, best illustrated the accomplishment of the 30th Division.
Translated to English, the German high command’s regrouping included what they termed “the remnants of their 1st (Adolf Hitler) division.”
Shortly after Germany’s surrender, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower selected the 30th Division as the most outstanding of the 50 such divisions that had seen action in the European Theater.