On 31 July 1944, following the breakout of the American First Army from its Normandy bridgehead, Major General John S. Wood's U.S. 4th Armored Division captured Avranches. This forced open a gateway for Lieutenant General George S. Patton's newly activated U.S. Third Army to push west into Brittany or south and east toward the heart of France.
After Patton's advance beyond Avranches to the south revealed the Germans' inability to seal the breach in their line, Kluge would have done well to make a timely general withdrawal to a backup line of defense, possibly at the Seine River. But Adolf Hitler at his command post in distant East Prussia adamantly refused to countenance a retreat. Instead, he demanded a massive offensive west to Avranches. Hitler insisted that such an attack would enable the Germans to reverse the outcome of the entire Normandy Campaign.
General Paul Hausser's Seventh Army, part of Field Marshal Günther von Kluge's German Army Group B, mounted the counterattack. It began on 7 August and was intended to cut off Patton's army from Lieutenant General Courtney H. Hodges's U.S. First Army. Deciphered German radio traffic betrayed the German intentions, and Major General J. Lawton Collins's VII Corps of the First Army deployed to repel the counterattack. Collins noted Hill 317, a commanding elevation near Mortain, a crossroads town nearly 20 miles east of Avranches. Soon the 2nd Battalion of the 120th Infantry Regiment of Major General Leland S. Hobbs's 30th Division held this key position.
Hausser's Seventh Army launched its attack early on 7 August, but the German forces had assembled hastily and did not deploy in the strength that Hitler had desired. Even so, the Germans managed to achieve local surprises and to make forward progress, including the isolation of Hill 317. The hill's defenders held on tenaciously but suffered some 300 casualties during the next few days. Meanwhile, U.S. artillery spotters on the hill called down devastating fire, and Allied air forces dominated the battlefield from above. Heavy fighting engaged all or parts of six American divisions under Collins (north to south): the 9th, 4th, 30th, 1st, and 35th Infantry Divisions and the 2nd Armored Division. The battle lasted until 12 August, but, as early as 8 August, it was clear that the German attack would fail.
A furious Hitler demanded a second and more powerful stroke, which necessarily required some days to organize. Kluge and his subordinates persuaded him to strike first at Major General Wade Hampton Haislip's XV Corps of Patton's army. Haislip was moving eastward around the Germans' left flank and then northward toward their rear. In the event, the Germans failed to stop Haislip, to launch another attack toward Avranches, and to impede the relentless advance of additional American forces through the Avranches corridor. Thus the principal result of the unsuccessful German counterattack toward Avranches was to place their own forces in a pocket, risking envelopment and destruction.
Richard G. Stone
Blumenson, Martin. The United States Army in World War II: The European Theater of Operations: Breakout and Pursuit. Washington, DC: Office of the Chief of Military History, Department of the Army, 1961.; Blumenson, Martin. The Battle of the Generals: The Untold Story of the Falaise Pocket: The Campaign That Should Have Won World War II. New York: William Morrow, 1994.; Collins, J. Lawton. Lightning Joe: An Autobiography. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1979.; Reardon, Mark J. Victory at Mortain: Stopping Hitler's Counteroffensive. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2002.