Yes, I know: it should be a 48-star flag... The 115th A.A.A. Gun Battalion, 1943 to 1945

France (Part 5)

AVRANCHES

At Carentan, following the American breakthru at St. Lo and the beginning of operations for the Third United States Army, the 115th realized it would soon be on the move again. Back in May, before the invasion, we had been assigned to the Third Army and while we'd been attached to the First for our part on the beachhead, the assignment had not been changed. First Army petitioned ETOUSA to keep the 115th, trying to trade one of its assigned gun battalions to the Third because of the superior showing we had made, but the high brass decided to leave us as we had originally been assigned and on 1 August 1944, the date the Third Army became operational in France, we reverted to General Patton's control and prepared to move into a bivouac area just south of Cherbourg.

"If the beach was the freshman year of our combat, Avranches was the rest of the course thrown at us in a hurry."

This move never took place. The 4th Armored Division, breaking thru the hole in the Kraut lines the Infantry had made at St. Lo, moved with unparallelled speed thru Avranches to the base of the Brittany peninsula, swerving east; its drive was dramatic and unprecedented and its supply lines were stretching hourly in dangerous thinness, vulnerable to enemy air and armored activity. So on the day scheduled for our move into bivouac to await developments we moved south instead, with the mission of providing AA protection for the all-important highway over which flowed Third Army supplies.

Our first day's move took us to our bivouac area a mile or so north of Avranches, the funnel thru which all supplies to the Armor had to flow. The recce parties arrived about 2000 hours but the batteries, parts of columns of GI vehicles that stretched in an unbroken line for about 50 miles along the single- highway, did not arrive until long after dark. Their trip, and the recce party's wait, was broken by dramatic attempts of the Luftwaffe to strafe the columns, and to bomb out the road. In the latter they received minor success, blowing out a crater some 10 feet deep and 20 feet across in the road not far from the RC; this, however, the Engineers took care of quickly.

The next morning we moved to our positions with the specific mission of defending the damn across the Selune River between St. Hilaire d'Harcouet and Ducey. Destruction of the damn would have flooded the all-important single highway and it was up to us to keep Kraut planes away until the Engineers had drawn off all the water behind it.

These positions were the first we had occupied for Third Army and it was our first experience in following an Armored division before the Infantry had had a chance to mop up. During the first days at Ducey, the Germans made an attempt to break through the thinly held American flank at Mortain, trying to cut through to the coast at Avranches and split General Patton's combat teams from their supplies, which were still all coming from the Beach. Naturally the plan didn't work, but at the peak of the counterattack, German panzer troops had advanced to within a mile or two of St. Hilaire (our A and C Batteries' positions) and isolated tanks were even closer to the batteries. The battalion established liaison with the American 30th (Old Hickory) Division and plans were developed for emergency antitank deployment of the nineties.

While this ground activity was incidental to our assigned mission, it had a definite effect on our AA activity. To support their counterattack and to prevent an American build-up of reserves, the Germans used their Luftwaffe with an extravagance we had not seen before. Compared to the capabilities of Allied air power what Goering sent over was pitiful, but it made good shooting. He used his two main types of planes, Ju-88's and 188's for bombing and fighters (FW-190's and Me-109's) for strafing. Every night for a week Jerry came over, starting his first raids in the last hours of daylight (remember how late it stayed light?) and ending the evening's work about 0400 the next morning. Because of the number of enemy planes thrown over us, we got an idea what German tactics were like. A high flying Ju-88 would come over and when our guns and the AW opened up on him, low flying fighters would strafe or divebomb the gun positions. Or a plane would be sent into our area from one direction in an attempt to screen the main attack, approaching on another azimuth. In spite of such tactics, our fire control and crews showed that American AA was more than a match for the Luftwaffe. The nineties, designed for protection against high-flying level bombers flying a straight course for even a minimum bomb run, did a fine job on fighters and on bombers which in desperation made no straight bomb run, and consequently never even came close to damaging the target they were sent out to get.

When the shooting was over the Battalion's record was compiled and it looked good. Several hundred planes had attacked the area and of the many bombs dropped none was anywhere near the dam and only one slightly damaged the road between Avranches and St. Hilaire. In addition, the gun batteries, supplemented by the temporary addition to the battalion of Battery C of the 411th AAA Gun Bn, had brought down 35 planes. The four 115th batteries fired during the period over 4,000 rounds of 90 mm ammunition. Even Headquarters Battery, virgin as to AA fire, was initiated when strafed by two Me-109's and fired back with the one truck mount fifty in the area. Dog Battery narrowly escaped serious casualties during one of the Jerry attacks aimed to neutralize AA resistance in the great St. Hilaire dam zone. They bombed D Battery area just missing the center of the position with a 500 pound bomb, spraying the area with shrapnel. Able Battery while moving into its position was caught by strafing planes before they had a chance to remove their water-cooled fifties from the convoy positions on the trucks. One was low on water and as there was none available the gun cooled during the next fifteen minutes of hot and fast action by the contents of a five-gallon jug of hard French cider! After the first few days of intense firing the battalion found itself seriously short of ammunition. Ammunition, being hauled to the ammo dumps by a Negro Quartermaster trucking crew was sent directly to the battalion in this emergency. The trucks had been strafed and bombed on the way to the front and the drivers were weary, leary and half-frightened out of their pants. Just as they arrived at the gun positions Jerry came over in a high-level bombing raid. A quick transfer of ammunition was made from the trucks to the guns and as luck would have it with the first few courses we accounted for several flamers. This dramatic exhibition brought the colored boys to their feet with loud and enthusiastic cheers and sworn vows that they'd truck ammo anywhere any time for the ack-ack boys. If the beach was the freshman year of our combat, Avranches was the rest of the course thrown at us in a hurry. We suffered no casualties and that in itself was something to thank God for, God and the wise selection of sites, the able maintenance and acceptance of rigid black-out discipline. Other AA units were not so fortunate.

For our work at Avranches we were commended by General Patton, a commendation well earned and well fought for.

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reverts to General Patton's control on the 1st of August. On the 2nd, they are plunged into the wake of the 4th Armored Division's unprecedented breakthrough at St. Lo in order to provide AA protection of the too-thin Third Army supply lines. Deployed near Avranches, the 115th is tasked to defend the vital dam across the Selune River between St. Hilaire d'Harcouet and Ducey. The 115th is threatened on the ground by German counterattack, making plans with the 30th Infantry Division for possible anti-tank deployment. The AA action here is intense: at the end of the engagement the four gun batteries of the 115th, "supplemented by the temporary addition to the battalion of Battery C of the 411th AAA Gun Bn, had brought down 35 planes."

For their action at Avranches, the 115th earns a commendation from General Patton.
 
Updated Tuesday June 07, 2005 09:10:29 PDT
The original text of The Story of the 115th A.A.A. Gun Battalion, published by the unit in 1945, is in the public domain. So how, you may ask, can I claim that the contents of these web pages are protected by copyright?

The answer is that it is my own transcription of the text and images into electronic format, and compilation into these web pages that is copyrighted. In addition, the web design, art, and annotations, plus all material from my father's personal albums are copyrighted original works. I reserve all rights to how all these materials are used. You may not copy them or store them in any retrieval system without permission.