On June 6, 1944, General Dietrich Kraiss and the 7000 some soldiers of his 352nd Infantry Division were at Omaha Beach to meet the Allied invasion. Fighting valiantly against the overwhelming tide of American and British forces, Kraiss and 352nd were stretched thin at the beaches and continued the defense inland for weeks as they fought the Allied advance toward their objective of St. Lo.
St. Lo was an important crossroads objective which had endured German occupation since 1940. On the morning of June 6, 1944, the city was hit with vicious American artillery bombardments. As the Allies advanced inland after the coastal landings toward St. Lo, the German 352nd and 353rd Infantry Divisions and 3rd Parachute Division formed a line to slow them down. By late July, St. Lo was liberated by the Allies and the 352nd was destroyed. By early August, Kraiss was dead, and the German presence in Northern France was near its end.
The Heroes of Omaha and Panzer Lehr book from Skirmish Campaigns outlines the eleven engagements during this key period from D-Day to the German counterattack through the Allied breakthrough. This past weekend at Metropolitan Wargamers in Brooklyn, NY we ran through the battle near Le Mesnil-Rouxelin just north of St. Lo on June 17, 1944. With elements of the US 175th Infantry Regiment closing in, General Kraiss and his headquarters quickly assembled an ad hoc force to delay the American advance. In the game, three US rifle squads (each armed with a BAR team) and a lone M4 Sherman must advance and seize the German HQ while being held at bay by several small German teams armed with rifles, Panzerfausts, a mortar and a MG-42. the Americans have to hustle, and they have eight turns to capture the German HQ before Kraiss and his staff can make their escape to fight another day.
With my US Airborne 28mm models standing in for the American infantry, they spent the first few turns moving in from the north and navigating the bocage hedgerows. Two squads and the US HQ moved to the east of the main road, the Sherman ran straight through the middle and one squad edged toward a French farmhouse mid-field. The German machine gun set up at the road edge in the bocage, looking to cover the advance by road or in the thick fields. Other German riflemen spread out along the hedges, looking to create a defense using their thin units and cover to the best advantage.
US soldiers push through the fields and bocage
German soldiers edge into position along the bocage
By turn four, the firing began. Germans along the bocage made an attempt to shoot the Sherman at close range with a panzerfaust but the shot miraculously missed. The Sherman answered with a burst of machine gun and high explosive shots, forcing the Germans to fall back from the hedge and into the field. The Sherman rolled forward and a second squad of Germans emerged from the bocage and rushed the tank, placing three grenades along its left side. With the charges set to blow, the tank moved forward and rotated its turret to light up the exposed Germans with another round of machine gun fire, destroying the entire unit. Just as the smoke cleared, the grenades blew up along the side of the tank, immobilizing it for the game with its weapons still functional and crew left unharmed. Back in the field at the center, the German rifles and MG-42 took up new positions and the two US rifle squads and HQ continued to creep forward in prone positions.
With game time running short, the Americans in the field stood to fire on the Germans. Two German riflemen fell and the MG-42 crew took heavy fire, knocking it out for a round as the remaining crew scrambled back into position. At the left of the field, a US squad opened up at the Germans stretched along the hedgerow. Leaping the bocage and rushing forward, the Germans vanished in a hail of bullets, opening the route forward to the German HQ ahead. At the same time, Germans fell back along the right side of the field and the Americans ran forward. On the far US right, the third fire team ran forward, using their broken tank as cover as they made an end run toward the German command team in their farmhouse HQ.
Two US squads and the platoon HQ advance at prone through the field
US riflemen and BAR gunner fire into the German MG-42 as another American squad rushes forward in the distance
By the sixth turn, Kraiss and his command staff were on the move, making a run south from the safety of the farm where they had sat in cover for the whole game. With the final German defense in the field breaking, Americans broke through toward the farmhouse straight ahead and to both sides. Four remaining German rifles behind a wall and in a small copse of trees at the farm exchanged fire with the Americans, holding off dozens of GIs as Kraiss continued his run for safety.
With the final turn eighth turn’s arrival, the Americans finally reached the edge of the farm. After quick series of shots, another German fell but no Americans were able to seize the HQ in time as Kraiss and a couple straggling men slipped off to the south further toward St. Lo..
Our battle at the German HQ near Le Mesnil-Rouxelin presented a pretty good feel for the fighting that occurred in mid-June 1944. With a wave of Allied forces closing in toward their objective of St. Lo, General Kraiss and the other German commanders struggled to stall the advance. With the four-year German control of Northern France at stake, German forces cobbled together a fierce retreating defense. Beginning with the tide of men landing on the beaches and from the air on D-Day, the war had turned inevitably for the Allies.