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A tiny duchess, happy hermits & Old Hickory bravery at Hill 314, in Mortain

A rich little girl of 8 paid for the first recorded chapel on top of Mortain’s tiny mountain, Montjoie.  There have been rumours of religious constructions here since the pagans worshipped Jupiter, but for firm dates this one, 24 July 1613, can be relied upon.

Match! With a bit more pointing.  At Mont Saint-Michel.
Match! With a bit more pointing. At Mont Saint-Michel.

Other big dates in this rocky outcrop’s history are 6 – 12 August 1944, but more of that later.

Poor little rich girl

Marie de Montpensier was a Normandy girl, born in Château de Gaillon in the Eure.  She was an only child and a multi-millionaire duchess since the death of her father in 1608 when her title became ‘Countess of Mortain & Duchess of Châtellerault, Montpensier & Saint-Fergau’.

During a tour of her lands in 1612/13 she was taken to the remarkable viewpoint on top of Montjoie by her uncle and guardian; the hugely influential Cardinal de Joyeuse.

Maria de Montpensier
Maria de Montpensier

Pilgrims pleasure

It would not have been hard to convince anyone, let alone a child that this was a special place.

From the top of Montjoie the cliffs fall away for 323 steep meters.  The view is nearly 360 degrees around.

Importantly on a clear day you can see Mont Saint-Michel.  For pilgrims travelling from the East this was their first view of their journey’s end, and here they would stop and give thanks. A charter outlining the chapel services and settling an income on Marie’s chapel was signed 24 July 1613.

On 25 July, much to his chagrin, the rather overheated Bishop of Avranches climbed to the top of Montjoie and blessed the chapel to Saint Michael’. We don’t know if Marie visited her chapel again.  We do know that poor Marie was a politician’s pawn, used to keep a weak and rebellious brother of Louis XIII in order.

She was married off to the unwilling Gaston d’Orleans in 1626.  Then on 4 June 1627 age just 22 she died, a few days after giving birth to a their daughter Anne Marie Louise.

Gaston wore his second best outfit. It was not a happy day.
Gaston wore his second best outfit. It was not a happy day.

At her autopsy a few tiny pieces of placenta were found stuck to her womb, tiny but enough to start a devastating infection.  Although midwife Louise Bourgeois was cleared, her reputation was in ruins and she never worked again.  But that is another story.

Happy hermits

Over the next century Montjoie continued to be a popular stopping point for travellers.  For many years a dozen official hermits lived in a hermitage along the cliff top.

It was a surprisingly comfy set-up, particularly as (according to the ‘Chronicles of Mortain’ by Hippolyte Sauvage in 1850) they were ‘forced to retain the services of companions for their lonlinesss’ and made a rather un-hermit-like profit selling milk, butter, fruit and light snacks to visitors.

The practical Bishop of Avranches, Monseigneur Kerhoen of Cottanfao supported the hermits self-sufficiency but he would not allow them to sell hard liquor or ‘fermented liquids’. Considering the hermits sound business sense we do wonder if they sometimes ‘forgot’ this unprofitable restriction on their activities.

Winds of change

By the end of the eighteenth century the winds of change were whistling around Mortain and Montjoie.  The last hermit, Brother Pierre Gaillard of Mortain, died in 1774 and when Marie’s chapel fell down during the Revolution no-one was particularly interested.

Click on this pic to enlarge and you can just make out Mont Saint-Michel!
Click on this pic to enlarge and you can just make out Mont Saint-Michel!

It didn’t take many years for attitudes to soften a little and by 1852 the idea of a chapel on Montjoie gained popularity.  The first version of the one we see today was blessed on 14 September 1852. Hermits not included.

Forward to 1944

In 1944 Montjoie was given another name.  Hill 314. The fighting that took place here is recognised as among the fiercest of the Second World War. At Mortain Germany launched its first large scale counter attack on the Allies since the invasion.

A well earned rest

After 49 days in a war zone the American 30th Division, the southern states ‘Old Hickory’ were ready for a rest.   They had fought continually in the Normandy hedgerows ‘the bocage’, made possible the capture of St Lo and fought fiercely in the battle of Tessy-sur-Vire.

While in Tessy after the battle for 3-4 August they enjoyed their first showers and clean clothes for some weeks, plus a welcome pay day and replacement equipment.  Over 800 soldiers joined them, but their numbers were still thin.

5 August – a new mission

On 5 August the refreshed but battle worn 120th Infantry of the 30th Division were given what was expected to be a light mission.

View from Le Petit Chapelle above Mortain
View from Le Petit Chapelle above Mortain

To relieve the 18th Infantry at Mortain.  A small town that was now seeing very little action as the German Army looked to be in retreat.  After an uneventful journey of around 45 miles they arrived mid morning on 6 August.

Paranoid and desperate – Hitler, August 1944

In Germany Hitler knew that retreat from France would mean being forced to fight in their own country.  It was not acceptable.

He demanded a counter attack. He named it Luttich after a WW1 German victory and he would not tolerate any insubordination.

Since the attack on his life, the briefcase bomb of 30 July, Hitler no longer trusted his high command. Disagreement meant disloyalty, and that meant death.

In Normandy Field Marshall Van Kluge was told to ‘strike like lightening’. Four Panzer divisions were provided. They would start at Mortain – objective, Avranches. If successful they would cut off the Allies march into Brittany. Van Kluge was well aware they would need a miracle to succeed.

The Allies intercepted radio messages that revealed Germans plans for a counter attack around Mortain.  The information was not passed on.

6 August – The 120th arrive at Mortain

The mood in Mortain was jubilant as the town celebrated the good fortune of liberation achieved with very few injuries and little damage to the town.  They welcomes the 30th enthusiastically.  Even the hotels were open and Command CP chose the central Hotel de la Poste for his base.

Through the pines at Hill 314
Through the pines at Hill 314

But there was still a war on and the 2nd Battalion, 120th Infantry, with K Company attached, and two platoons of Tank Destroyers and one platoon from the A.T. Company in support, were sent to relieve the 1st Battalion, 18th Infantry and attachments on the high ground east of Mortain. Montjoie.

MontJoie, known by the army as Hill 314, was clearly a vital look out position with views across to the sea.

To relieve the 1st Battalion as quickly as possible, Command replicated their positions across the hill, expecting to have time to formulate their own over the next few days and strengthen the position with mines.

They had with them a few mortars, very few bazookas, virtually no medical supplies, no mines, no anti tank guns. They did have rifles and machine guns and a few Michelin road maps of the area passed on from the 1st Battalion.

6 August – afternoon

An enemy plane flew over during the afternoon but was not a cause for concern.  Shortly after 5 enemy planes put the infantry on Hill 314 on alert.  They were ordered to dig-in but the ground was hard and rocky and in some places just 8 inches above solid rock.

Map of the area - click to enlarge
Map of the area – click to enlarge

Fortunately for the rest of the day no more planes were seen and all seemed quiet. At dusk a hot meal was served and two K rations issue to each man for breakfast and lunch the next day.  As expected the area was still quiet.

7 August – shortly after midnight

After dark activity around the hill picked up.  At 1am they could hear the clanking of German tank treads on the roads below.  It didn’t sound like a retreat.

Then just after midnight ‘all hell broke loose’. Mortar fire lit up the night sky and ripped through the battalion on Hill 314.

The counter-attack was so completely unexpected the enemy quickly overran roadblocks to the South of Mortain.   Fighting in the town was intense and bloody. At 2am the roadblock at Abbaye-Blanche was attacked but in spite of several casualties the 30th held its position. This would be a vital defence for the hill over the next few days.   But Panzer tanks against infantry, however determined, was a one sided battle.  By dawn the enemy once again occupied Mortain.

7 August – day

Thick morning fog hid a new horror.  As the sun warmed it lifted the fog but also glinted on the columns of enemy tanks and infantry streaming in from the east and south east.  Hill 314 was completely cut off from the rest of the 30th. The Germans wanted the hill.

The 120th were firing down on them and of course whoever controlled it could see what was going on for miles around. At 10am they attacked.  Bombs, strafing, artillery and mortar fire all aimed at the hill, focusing on the area defended by E Company. The enemy briefly broke through the defensive line but, at appalling human cost to both sides, they were driven out and the defences re-established.

In Mortain

In the town the outnumbered Battalion Command was captured.  Up on the hill Rifle Company Commanders took command and responsibility. The 120th were on constant alert. Aware that radio transmissions could be intercepted and that battery power was low, communications were kept to absolute essential minimum.

Mortain after the battle
Mortain after the battle

The last of the K rations were eaten at midday.  A radio request for food, ammunition and medical supplies went out.  A farm on the Hill had chickens and rabbits but they didn’t last long.

Again at 2pm the enemy attacked.  Again with heavy losses on both sides they were repelled.  The hill was never quiet, no open area was safe.   Artillery and mortar fire was constant and numerous enemy patrols attempted to infiltrate the hill. Some got a few feet up the hill, but they never got down.  Within the 120th morale was surprisingly high.

8 August

As 8 August dawned up on the hill food and ammunition were fast running out, medical supplies were almost non-existent, radio batteries fading.  They tried to make the wounded comfortable but lacking pain relief and plasma their situation was pitiful, many died. A day of sporadic firing, no big attack. But they were trapped.

Night of 8/9 August

The young men who died on Hill 314 were often in exposed positions that could not be reached until dark.  The effect of seeing dead friends left out in the open would haunt their fellow soldiers for the rest of their lives. Moving the dead away from view was an important night-time task. Enemy patrols continued their assaults on the hill.  Morale was recorded as ‘fair’ but they didn’t sleep.

9 August day

By the third day the 120th on hill were exhausted from constant attacks, hungry and thirsty. They could hear the cries of the wounded with nothing to stop their suffering.  Around them bodies rotted in the hot August sun.

Mortain, foxhole
Mortain, foxhole

The smell was stomach turning.

A desperate attempt by two of the 30th’s liaison planes to drop supplies were easily repelled by anti-aircraft fire.  Faster planes were needed, permission was painfully slow in arriving.

10 August

A radio message saying a C-47 would fly over with supplies did not give them much hope. They knew the enemy monitored all radio communications. At 3.15pm a group of Allied fighter planes appeared and dive bombed and strafed the enemy.

Leaving pockets of devastation they flew back to the hill and circled. Shortly afterwards at 4pm they returned escorting a flight of C-47s.  Colourful parachutes sailed down towards Hill 314 and Mortain.  Half behind enemy lines but still, they have some food, ammunition, medical supplies and some batteries!

An unwanted visitor

When an unwanted visitor approached the E Company waving a white flag he was not offering to surrender but offering ‘honorable surrender’ to the Americans.

The German officer went on to explain just how hopeless the scenario was for the 120th’s.  He talked for quite a while. He finished by saying that if they did not surrender by 8pm everyone on Hill 314 would be blown to bits. The platoon leader relayed the message to E Company Commander.

His response was apparently ‘short, to the point and unprintable’.

At 8.15pm the enemy launched a strong attack and for a while the situation was perilous as ammunition stocks were still low.  When the enemy got through the defensive line the Company Commander ordered all artillery to defend that position.  It was a success; the enemy took a severe rather surprised beating.

A solution for supplies

Some miles from Mortain the 230th Field Artillery Battalion were working on a solution to getting supplies to Hill 314.  They knew it could be some hours or days before the Panzer divisions were ejected from Mortain. They hit on the plan to empty M-84 smoke canisters and replace the contents with medical supplies; bandages, dressings, morphine etc.   The 120th on Hill 314 were warned to expect these special supplies. It was not a success, none of the rounds were recovered as they ricocheted off the rocks or were simply lost in the darkness.

11 August

Another misty morning was followed by another attempt to fire in medical supplies.  6 rounds were recovered, unfortunately the phials of pain relief and plasma were all damaged.

View across the plains from Hill 314
View across the plains from Hill 314, today

But down the hill across the plains something unexpected was taking place. In the distance columns of the enemy were seen marching east, unknowingly towards what would become the ‘Falaise Pocket’ although their horror story started before that.

Hitler had wanted the impossible, his fighters were being forced back towards Germany.

p on the hill the 120th radioed in details and locations for airstrikes against the departing enemy.  In a very short time the Air Corps started an attack that did not end until the sun went down.  From the hill fires and destruction peppers the landscape.

11/12 August – night

The night started badly, with intense shelling from a ‘Screaming Minnie’ a Nebelwafer multi barrelled mortar aimed at the roadblock keeping the infantry distracted.  They didn’t know the noise was being used to hide the sounds of a retreat until the Minnie stopped to be replaced by the mournfull songs from German foot soldiers heading east to an uncertain fate.

12 August

The battlefield in Mortain on the way to Hill 314 was ‘the worst sight I ever saw’ said John M. Adams, Jr .  Both American and german bodies littered the landscape.  Some had been in the hot August sun for 5 days. Slowly the people of Mortain came back from their hiding places in the surrounding countryside and helped to bury the dead.

Relief arrives

11.30am, 320th Infantry Division made it through to Hill 314 and G Company.  Although they had been through heavy fighting and had many casualties of their own they quickly went to work helping evacuate the Hill.  1st Battalion 119th Infantry made contact with K Company. By 1pm on 12 August 2nd Battalion 120th Infantry was completely relieved from Hill 314.

Mortain after the battle
Mortain after the battle

They had succeeded in their mission to hold the Hill, but at a terrible price.

Of the 700 men who walked up Hill 314 just 376 were able to walk down.

The American journalist and writer JD Salinger was one of those young men.  His daughter has suggested it was those few day in August, 1944 that haunted him for the rest of his life.  They called it ‘post traumatic stress’. There was almost nothing left of the town of Mortain, except the church.

Recognition for bravery

The many acts of personal bravery and inspirational leadership at Mortain and Hill 314 rightly fill books and memories.  Sadly at the time the chaos of war meant that not all of those who should have been rewarded received recognition and tragically some who were due to receive decorations died in other battles before awards were made. But everyone who hears about Hill 314 knows all of the 120th on that rocky outcrop rose bravely if not fearlessly to the immense challenge set them, and every one of them should be recognized.

Memorial to the 30th on Hill 314, Mortain
Memorial to the 30th on Hill 314, Mortain

The numbers from each Company the hill who were able to walk down the hill says more than all these words about 7-12 August on Hill 314.  Just remember that normal Company strength is 200 men.

  • Co. “C”              24
  • Co. “E”            100
  • Co. “F”                 8
  • Co. “G”            103
  • Co. “H”              18
  • Co. “K”            100
  • A.T. Plat.             4
  • Can. Co.              5
  • 823rd 1st Plat.    8
  • 230th F.A. Bn.   6

Memorials

In September, 1984, the veterans of the 30th Division set up a memorial stone to the memory of their dead and for the defence of freedom on the hill. In 1999, they planted a silvered walnut tree near the memorial  stone, a  young  hickory tree. Now a ‘barefoot path’ joins this places of peaceful meditation.

The barefoot path, hill 314
The barefoot path, Hill 314

Our visit

We walked along the tree lined path to the little chapel, glad of shade as the late summer sun burned unusually hot.  The location was a surprise, our postcard had suggested a view across the Sea! But something made this place important enough to have a car park and landscaping.

Then we saw the memorial.  We didn’t know its history then but could see by the clipped grass edges, the clean stone, the bright flags, this was the memorial of soldiers remembered. Reading small notes of history at the site we felt privileged to be standing where those brave young men fought so hard for freedom.

We gave a thought to their families who we knew would give so much to be able to stand where we stood today. Then a group arrived, all the way from Tennessee to pay their respects.

They smiled as we walked by, wearing their sensible sandals, sunhats, holding cameras and a shared history.  They radiated joy and achievement to be walking along this historic path.

It was then we understood that love and the eternal pilgrimage will never end on Montjoie.

Key sources

 

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