21 May 2016

For those, like this writer, who esteem the arts of modern fortification, Metz is the Florence of military architecture. I greet the spring each year in Metz.

This imposing city combines the dazzling, art modern architecture of the France’s Maginot Line with the pre-World War I older forts of the great builder, Serré de Rivières.

A short drive to the west lies the famed fortress city of Verdun, site of one of history’s bloodiest battle exactly one hundred years ago this month.

But few people know that America’s renowned general George S. Patton and his rampaging 3rd Army, met their worst reverse during WWII in the fall of 1944 before Metz. Media glory-makers have forgotten this one.

When the Allies invaded Normandy in June, 1944, they faced a weak Germany army that had been shattered by the Soviets on the Eastern Front. The Germans had almost no air cover, and barely any gasoline. Total Allied air superiority meant their units and supplies could only move at night. Depots, trains, and road transport were bombed without relent.

After the Allies broke through at Normandy, Patton’s US 3rd Army raced across France, headed for the Moselle River and the Rhine. The run-down German forces were swept aside by Patton’s tank superiority of 20 to 1 and the mighty US Army Air Force. Patton quickly gained the reputation of being invincible and unstoppable, and America’s finest field commander.

Stunningly, Patton’s irresistible dash across France was stopped in its tracks at the ancient fortress city of Metz on the Moselle River.

The retreating Germans managed to cobble together a feeble, composite defense force, grandly titled the German First Army commanded by Gen. Otto von Knobelsdorff, to cover the 50-km wide front of the 3rd Army. The German force was made up of skeleton units, supply troops, a training unit of non-commissioned officers, and the seriously understrength 17th SS Panzergrenadier Division that was refitting after taking severe losses on the Eastern Front.

In September, three attempts by US forces to cross the Moselle and advance into Metz were defeated. An unexpected role was played by an elderly German fort south of Metz that frustrated American river crossings. Making matters worse, General Eisenhower, the Allied supreme commander, diverted flows of gasoline to Patton’s nemesis, British Field Marshall Montgomery, infuriating the hotheaded American commander.

For the next three months, Patton sought to fight his way across the Moselle. ‘Old blood and guts’ ranted and raged. This was the first time he faced serious German forces in France. His myth of invincibility was in danger.

The battle came to focus on two very large, hilltop forts on the west bank of the Moselle: Driant and Jeanne d’Arc (using their French names). Built originally by the Germans in the 1890’s when they ruled Lorraine, these forts or “festen” were state of the art with thick reinforced concrete positions, artillery in steel turrets, interconnecting underground tunnels, electricity, vast trenches and thick belts of barbed wire. These modern “cubist” forts would later deeply influence the French engineers who built the dispersed Maginot Line forts.

Patton ordered three major assaults on Forts Driant and Jeanne d’Arc. Heavy US artillery and air strikes blasted each of the large forts. Then US infantry and engineers, backed by tanks and flamethrowers, assaulted the works. Ferocious fighting swirled through the underground galleries connecting the fort’s various combat blocs.

The Germans held, inflicting heavy casualties on the attacking US forces. Patton ordered yet more massive air strikes. But they had no effect on the massive forts designed to withstand 240mm artillery shells. This was the first time the all-powerful US Army Air Force was not able to crush enemy resistance.

As a result, Patton and his 3rd Army remained immobilized while the war went on elsewhere. Patton’s plan to race across the Rhine and be the first Allied general to storm Berlin was frustrated by old forts and rugged German defenders. Finally, the Americans brought in French officers who had served on the Maginot Line to advise how to attack the forts.

In mid-November, 1944, the Americans finally were able to cross the Moselle both north and south of Metz and slowly encircle the stronghold city. The forts surrounding Metz finally fell to heavy assaults and from lack of ammunition. Ft. Jeanne d’Arc was the last, on 13 December 1944.

The gallant defense of Metz by far outnumbered and outgunned German forces delayed the US attack on Germany and covered the withdrawal from France of retreating German forces. Which reminds us of Churchill’s famous dictum, “you will never know war until you fight Germans.”

Copyright Eric S. Margolis 2016

This post is in: Europe, History


  1. The wrath of a wounded Russian bear in the east and the shortage of fuel in western Europe sealed Hitlers fate. And this because he reneged on the Molotov-Ribbentrop treaty. Hitler should have known, that even the might of his armies and their novel blitzkrieg would never be able to fight on two fronts in opposite directions. Maybe he vainly overestimated the abilities of the desert fox, who was saddled with logistics problems. Technically the Germans were way ahead of their foes, but Hitler started to show his psychopathic side. His cunning was greater than his intellect.
    When it comes to barbarism, both sides showed their equality to each other.

  2. Joe from Canada says:

    The glory of war!

    A few years ago, I stood beneath the Arc De Triomphe.

    Napoleon wanted to pay grand tribute to his 128 victories over much of Europe. A tribute to great wars. Or so he thought.

    Such repulsive absurdity!

    I looked at the names on that monument: thousands of lives lost for what?

    I thought of the poem Ozymandias, another tribute to a great warrior.

    Today, America has a choice between peace, and two warriors: Hillary and Donald. Billions will be spent to create more war, hatred, and revenge. Great monuments will be built.

    Bernie, the candidate who speaks against these wars is being dismissed.

    Not much profit, and few monuments in wars that were averted.

  3. Steve_M. says:

    Very informative article. Indeed, what happened to Patton’s 3rd Army at Metz has been glossed over and I don’t recall it being described at all in the 1970 movie that bears his name. It also points, in part, to how the Battle of the Bulge arose in December 1944. If the 3rd Army had not been been stalled for so long at the Moselle River, Patton’s forces might have had a much clearer run to the Rhine, so the Battle of the Bulge might not have taken place when and where it did around Bastogne, in eastern Belgium. In that case, one can reasonably assume that the Germans would still have put up a valiant struggle anyway to stop the American and British armies from crossing the Rhine, so a differently located “Battle of the Bulge” might have taken place in Germany itself.

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