The 90th Infantry Division in Normandy at St. Germain-sur-Seves

In July 1944, the 90th Infantry Division, after a month of fighting in Normandy had lost a commanding general, seven regimental commanders and suffered over a 100% casualty rate in enlisted men and 150% percent in officers. Most of the men in the division were green replacements; lead by men who had replaced those killed or wounded a week for so earlier. On July 22nd, the 90th infantry division was ordered to attack the village of St. Germain-sur-Seves, a stepping stone to the US Army’s main objective, the town of St. Lô, the last obstacle before the American’s could break out of the Normandy hedgerows.

90th infantry division

Shoulder insignia of the 90th Infantry Division

90th infantry division

Soldier’s of the 90th Infantry Division advancing in Normandy

St. Germain-sur-Seves was raised, like an island above low ground, with tall hedgerows across it. The village was surrounded by creeks and swamps and the Seves River to the north. Under good weather conditions the ground was difficult terrain, but in July 1944, heavy rains had made the area a muddy swamp.

The 90th Infantry Division’s 358th Infantry Regiment was chosen for the attack. Because of the inexperience of the soldiers, a planned night attack was changed to a daylight one.

The 358th faced elements of the German 6th Parachute Regiment, led by a tough combat commander named Baron Friederich August von der Heydte. Major von der Heydte had served in Greece, North Africa and Russia and was known for his bravery and leadership ability.

The 358th began its attack at 06:30am on July 22, after an artillery barrage. They made good progress even though the low overcast sky prevented air cover. The 1st and 2nd Battalions of the 358th marched north of St. Germain-sur-Seves, going more than a quarter mile through the swampy terrain. The Americans had no cover during their advance and their casualties steadily mounted.

90th infantry division

German Paratrooper, Alexander Uhlig

At 12:00 noon, the Germans pushed back. Believing the attack was a reconnaissance rather than an attack in force, Major von der Heydte ordered his Company 16, led by Sergeant Alexander Uhlig to push the Americans out and take a few prisoners. Uhlig’s understrength company of thirty two men made slow progress through the swamps which were now under clear skies teeming with Allied aircraft. Uhlig led his men through a sunken road beside the hedgerows until they were 800 yards from the Americans. Uhlig saw he was up against nearly three hundred men rather than a small reconnaissance unit. As Uhlig planned his attack, his company was re-enforced by additional men from another company. At 18:00 hours, Uhlig launched his attack and over the next three hours pushed the Americans back 350 yards, causing panicked American soldiers of the 90th Infantry Division to abandon their line and flea to the safety of the rear.

That night, Uhlig could hear the Americans digging in and knew he could not attack the same place again. He decided to attack the left flank of the American line. With his company down to only 28 men, Uhlig when back to search for more reinforcements, he found three tanks from the 2nd SS Panzer Division and sixteen men with two heavy machine guns from another battalion. Uhlig realized he could use the machine guns to cut off the Americans from retreating over the open fields near St. Germain-sur-Seves as well as prevent more Americans from coming to their aid. Uhlig had his machine gun teams dig in during the night and ordered them not to fire during the attack unless the Americans were withdrawing or bringing in new troops.

The morning sky of July 23rd, 1944 was overcast as the German paratroopers and SS tanks began their attack. American and German artillery went back and forth across the front, forcing the American’s to huddle low in their foxholes. Two of Uhlig’s three tanks were lost before the attack, one to mechanical problems, the other getting stuck in debris when it ran through a wall. The Germans made three separate attacks against the 90th Infantry Division, and succeeded in breaking through to the command post of the 1st Battalion, 358th Regiment. The Americans fell back in disarray to the open fields between their front lines and the Seves River. Lt. Colonel Al Seeger of the 358th Infantry Regiment ordered his men to throw down their weapons and surrender. Americans who tried to escape ran into the fields covered by Uhlig’s machine guns and were cut down.

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Uhlig with members of Company 16, German 6th Parachute Regiment

A lone German sergeant, fifty men and one tank had forced the surrender of 265 Americans. Uhlig restored the German front line and went to report to Major von der Heydte. The Major met him in the village, and had tea with Uhlig and some captured American officers.

At 15:00, Major von der Heydte learned that three 358th Infantry Regimental chaplains: Catholic Father Joseph J. Esser, Salvation Army Chaplain Edgar H. Stohler and Disciples of Christ Pastor James M. Hamilton were going into no man’s land to look for wounded. The chaplains carried no weapons, only Red Cross flags. The Germans, impressed by their bravery, stopped firing. A German captain went out to meet the American chaplains and talked with them through a German speaking American soldier.

When von der Heydte learned of what was happening, he suggested a truce and a wounded prisoner exchange. At one time, Chaplain Hamilton was called by a German machine gunner who pointed out a wounded man Hamilton had overlooked. German soldiers and medics also helped the Americans find and treat their wounded.

The 358th Infantry Regiment, as well as the entire 90th Infantry Division suffered a brutal defeat in their attack on St. Germain-sur-Seves. The village was eventually taken on July 27th after the German paratroopers abandoned it. The 90th Infantry Division would get a new divisional commander and eventually become one of the best divisions in the US Army. Sergeant Alexander Uhlig was awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross for his actions at St. Germain-sur-Seves. He would later be captured by the 90th Infantry Division and spend the rest of the war as a prisoner.

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