Co-authored with Mitch Kaidy, D-345
Towering over a vast stretch of eastern Germany, the hills looked down on cities, rivers, mountain passages and tactical and strategic sites. Most significantly, Hills 648 and 649 were bastions of Germany’s Siegfried Line, a series of heavily-armed and mined bunkers dug into the hillsides.
After helping to free the besieged city of Bastogne, Belgium, during the Battle of the Bulge, the 87th Infantry Division soldiers were exhausted. And their ranks had been thinned of experienced infantrymen. Yet, acting under orders from Lt. Gen. George S. Patton, Jr., the two towering hills were the 346th Regiment’s newly-assigned targets.
Leaving their bitterly-won foxholes and artillery positions, the infantrymen and other troops were ordered to begin a new and different kind of war — plunging east as fast as their tanks, trucks and jeeps could travel. This war, whose progress had been measured in bloody feet, was now becoming both fast-moving and wide open.
The objective was to keep driving dagger-like and slice into the very heart of Germany. Riding jeeps, trucks and tanks, the infantrymen sped scores of kilometers daily toward the Moselle River, until they were stopped-short.
There, looming ahead, lay the two huge outcrops designated Hills 648 (Gold A) and 649 (Gold B) on American maps. Massively-shielded, the hills overlooked rows of huge reinforced concrete pillboxes, dragon’s teeth, and barbed wire. Together, these comprised the Siegfried Line.
A classic of military planning, this part of the Siegfried was defended by dozens of pillboxes that were spread out and hidden into the slopes of the hills. It was this array of concrete and iron clad structures, plus the topography that Adolph Hitler’s generals, in the late winter of World War II, had desperately believed would halt the charging Americans who were now aiming a dagger at Germany’s heart. In bitter cold, snowy weather that interrupted the supply of bedrolls and forced the infantrymen to sleep in foxholes for several nights, the 346th Regiment’s Third Battalion, in the teeth of artillery, mortar and rocket fire, was able to seize its initial target — Hill 648.
The defenses they discovered underscored the two hills’ tactical significance. Strategically, however, the hills were also of critical significance: if these key outcrops fell, the entire German supply route into the Schnee Eifel (snow ridge) section of Germany would be jeopardized. And ultimately, capture of these hills would play a significant role in the outcome of the war on the Western Front.
Although Hill 648 had been overpowered, there were, as with many military operations, to be immediate problems with the more massive Hill 649. Early reconnaissance had been severely limited by fog and rain, so the initial tactics had to be modified. Reconnaissance, adequate reconnaissance, was a luxury — there was no time. But after a short pause, on Feb. 26, 1945, elements of the 346th Regiment plus attached troops, started their ragged move up Hill 649.
Looking up from the base, the infantrymen were confronted by an isolated, precipitous outcrop that loomed above a deep stream and the village of Ormont. Reconnoitering had revealed that the first 200 yards were relatively flat, leading to a gradual rise, then inclining steeply up to the last 200 yards. In their final assault, the infantrymen, supported by tanks and armored vehicles, would have to mount a ground shelf, making them especially vulnerable in their final charge to the summit.
Comprehensively planned as the operation sought to be, the assault might defeat the German defenders; but Hill 649’s natural obstacles also had to be defeated. Though treed in places, in other places the outcrop was bare and trickily boggy along most of the route.
Then there were the accompanying tracked vehicles. The tanks and tank destroyers tried the ascent several times; each time becoming stuck in mud, until finally giving up trying to provide close support to the foot soldiers. Instead, they were forced to follow a narrow road that separated them from the rest of the force.
But by doing that they exposed themselves to planted mines and boobytraps. Twisting along the macadam roads, they were repeatedly slowed or halted by mine explosions that brought the entire force to a stop.
The vehicles also proved to be a negative in another way. Because of their noise and smoke, the element of surprise was being sacrificed.
According to the 346th Infantry history recorded in 1945: “At 1:30 a.m. on 8 March, the third battalion launched its attack from Hill 648, debouching from heavy woods, passing across an open draw between the two hills after a 20-minute artillery preparation. Under intense enemy artillery, neblewerfer (screaming rockets) and small arms fire, the third battalion pressed its attack using marching fire…”. Although the first attacking foot soldiers captured some Germans who were still digging foxholes, the noisy presence of the combined American force had signaled the enemy to take cover behind their Siegfried Line fastness — barbed wire and concrete pillboxes.
But with the foot soldiers marching and firing day after day, morning, noon and night for almost a week, they finally reached the dug-in pillboxes. Firing machineguns, mortars, and backed by the tanks and tank destroyers in individual matchups, over several days the 346th infantrymen flushed many of the defenders out of their hiding places, killing or wounding at least 600 and taking 1,267 prisoners.
At this point in the war (mid-March, 1945), it was clear that the Germans were encountering difficulty in reinforcing their troops; so, as the battle wore on, day after day the Americans noted fewer German defenders and fewer prisoners.
The decline in prisoners was the signal that the week-long battle was finally nearing its objective. The capture of Hill 649 (popularly known as “Goldbrick Hill” by the GI’s) paved the way for the 87th Infantry Division to face its ultimate test assigned by Gens. Patton and Maj. Gen. Troy H. Middleton — to leap the broad Moselle and Rhine Rivers.
The bold, gallant and bloody victories at Hills 648 and 649 were estimated to have advanced the timetable for the defeat of the Wehrmacht by at least two weeks, and, based on daily death rates during the war, saved the lives of an estimated 360,000 German soldiers and civilians.
The price paid by the attacking 346th Regiment, which had suffered heavily in the Battle of the Bulge, was 829 soldiers killed or wounded on Goldbrick Hill (649) and Hill 648. Most of those soldiers were in their teens.
Ed Jans, who made the charge on Goldbrick Hill with Co. H, 346th Infantry, was severely wounded and evacuated. He now lives on Cape Cod, MA. Mitchell Kaidy is an award-winning journalist who served with Co. D, 345th Infantry. He lives in Rochester, NY.