The "Ghost," Matt Urban, Medal of Honor
“The Greatest Soldier in American History.”
President Jimmy Carter
By Ed Marek, editor
September 24, 2016
I then learned he is among the most combat decorated soldiers in American history.
I looked him up. His name is Lt. Colonel Matt Louis Urban. He was known as “the Ghost.” He was nicknamed “The Ghost” by German soldiers because he just kept coming back no matter how many times or how seriously he was wounded in battle.
The surprises kept on coming. His full name was “Matthew Louis Urbanowicz.” He was the son of Polish immigrants, born in 1919, grew up in Buffalo, New York, and graduated from Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. Why did this surprise me? My father was born in 1919 of Polish immigrants, he grew up in Buffalo, and I too grew up in Buffalo and graduated from the University of Buffalo.
I was embarrassed. I did not know about him. So, I wanted to tell his story. I quickly learned about Colonel Urban’s heroism in France following the Normandy landings in June 1944. As I dug deeper, I then learned he participated in the Allied liberation of Belgium in fall 1944, the Operation Torch American invasion of North Africa in 1942, and the victory over the Germans and Italians in Tunisia in 1943.
Anyone who has paid attention to "Operation Overlord," the Allied invasion of France at Normandy on June 6, 1944 can simply imagine how complex this was to plan and execute. The complexities did not end there, to be sure. Urban's story can be well appreciated by simply reading the Citation to Accompany the Medal of Honor that he received from President Carter on July 19, 1980. It covered the period June 14 to September 3, 1944, his time in the early days of the Normandy invasion and subsequent breakout within France proper and to Belgium.
President Carter described Urban as "The Greatest Soldier in American History." Some will argue that that greatest soldier was Audie Murphy. That is not a date I wish to discuss at all.
My goal here is to explain the environment at a top level in which he served and fought. To do that effectively, I have found I have to simplify the complex as best I can and remain accurate. Describing the environment in which our forces fought is important, because the environment usually presents them as many or more challenges as the enemy himself.
I'll start reviewing Urban's experience in France in 1944, because he received the Medal of Honor for his actions there. I’ll then move to Tunisia, which occurred prior to the Normandy invasion, and is a less well known story about Urban. I'll also address briefly the Allied liberation of Belgium in 1944, which occurred after Normandy. You will see that Urban set the marker while in North Africa in 1942 and 1943, and simply continued on fighting with a level of courage and valor that are staggering.
Invasion of France and the breakout from the Cotentin into France proper
This was the largest seaborne invasion in history. Planning began in 1943. The weather was stormy. The invasion fleet was drawn from eight different navies, comprising 6,939 vessels: 1,213 warships, 4,126 landing craft of various types, 736 ancillary craft, and 864 merchant vessels. This included five battleships, 20 cruisers, 65 destroyers, and two monitors. The Germans had a minimal naval presence, though the approaches had been heavily mined and several U-boats were in the area.
As far as I can tell, Ramsey's job was to get everything from England across the English Channel to the five beaches at Normandy, provide fire support, and land the ground forces on the beaches to the point where they could secure a strong position from which to advance and attack, known as obtaining a bridgehead. Within one week they brought nearly ninety thousand vehicles and six hundred-thousand men into France.
The Allied Air Forces began massive bombing and air-to-air combat before the landings occurred. The first objective was to disable the German Luftwaffe. The Allies engaged the Luftwaffe every chance they had, neutralized as many enemy airfields as was possible, and attacked the German aerospace industry. These air attacks were executed between January and June 1944. The second objective was to cut off main supply roads. Most attacks were against rail lines, marshaling yards, rolling stock and troop concentrations. Finally, once the landings began, the job was to provide close air support to the forces on the ground.
The 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions made night parachute drops early on D-Day June 6, 1944. Broadly speaking, they were dropped into an area in the center of the Cotentin Peninsula. The map is hard to read. But you can see the scope of the drop zone marked by the dotted blue lines. The two rivers will be more important to you in a few moments. The Merderet River flows southward from Cherbourg and divides the peninsula roughly one third to the east, two thirds to the west. The Douve River flows east and west and divides the peninsula roughly in half, northern and southern halves. Keep that in mind as we proceed.
British General Sir Bernard Montgomery (center), in command of the 21st Army Group, initially controlled all Allied ground forces landing at the beaches. Those forces included the US 1st Army, Lt. General Omar Bradley (left) in command, and the British 2nd Army, Lt. General Miles Dempsey (right) in command. Once sufficient American forces had landed, the US activated the 12th Army Group, General Bradley in command. The British adjusted the 21st Army Group to employ the British 2nd Army and the 1st Canadian Army, Montgomery in command.
Throughout this report I will refer to British forces. Please understand these included Commonwealth forces under British command.
The US 1st Army, for the invasion, had two corps, VII and V Corps. VII corps, Major General J. Lawton "Lightning Joe" Collins in command, shown here. The 1st Army was composed of the 4th, 9th, 79th and 90th Infantry Divisions (ID), and the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions, six divisions in all.
VII Corps landed at Utah Beach. V Corps, Major General Leonard Gerow in command, was composed of the 1st, 2nd, and portions of the 29th IDs. It landed at Omaha Beach. Our focus will be on the VII Corps, specifically the 9th ID.
The 4th ID made the initial landings at Utah Beach, while the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions paradropped inland behind enemy lines. The rest of VII Corps followed.
Referring to the map above, once the landings took hold, General Montgomery planned to take Cherbourg with the US 1st Army and Caen with the 2nd British Army. The Allies considered this the "breakout," meaning they got off the beaches to head inland. For the moment, I want to focus on the Cotentin Peninsula.
The German objectives were to contain the beach head with infantry, and save mobile reserves for a counterattack.
The Allied plan for the Cotentin Peninsula and Cherbourg
Te "breakout" plans were changed several times due to conditions on the battlefield. But speaking broadly, this map reflects how the Allies attacked the Cotentin Peninsula. Fundamentally, the 9th ID (circled in red) was to move straight westward to the sea, with the 82nd Airborne coming right along. The idea was to cut the peninsula in half, and trap the Germans north of the Douve River. The 9th was also to head northward with the 79th and 4th IDs first to Cherbourg and then to the Cap de la Hague, and capture both.
I'll just briefly mention the British objective of taking Caen to the southeast. Caen would serve as a jumping off point to conduct operations through the rest of France and into Belgium. It was the hub of 12 major roads, The Oren River and Caen Canal made it the sixth port of France. Caen was only 130 miles from Paris. Holding Caen would hinder the ability of German forces to respond to Allied operations in the drive up to Cherbourg, over to St. Lo and into France proper and to Belgium.
Taking Caen proved difficult. But it fell on or about July 20, 1944, depending on who's history you read. I'll not address it further.
So that was the plan for the 9th ID. Utah was the western-most beach and the closest to Cherbourg. It was added late in the planning game as the Allies determined they needed Cherbourg's port and airfields. As you can see, the 9th ID had its hands full.
I will not detail the drive up to Cherbourg as I want to concentrate on Matt Urban. This next map will help explain why.
The 9th ID landed at Normandy on D+4, June 10, 1944, at Utah Beach. It moved southward to a position north of the Douve River shown by the red arrow to the right. The top arrow points to the Merderet River, and the arrow on the left points to the Douve or Ouve River. It became known as the "Douve Line." Roughly, this was the line the Allies followed to the west coast. The 9th ID was paired with the 82nd Airborne Division moving in a coordinated fashion. The 82nd was to concentrate on the north bank of Douve west of the Merderet and the 9th was to cross the Merderet. The 90th Infantry Division was also in the fight, setting up a three ID front — 4th, 9th, 90th IDs. The objective targets were Barneville on the west coast and then Cherbourg and the Cap de la Hague to the north.
The 60th Infantry, of course, was with the 9th ID all the way. The 9th ID Infantry had three regiments, the 39th, 47th and 60th Infantry Regiments. Urban commanded F Company, 2nd Battalion, 60th Infantry Regiment, 9th ID, or F/2-60th Infantry.
The 60th Infantry was fully unloaded on Utah on June 13, 1944. It assembled and was tasked to go with the 9th ID westward to cut the Cotentin, then turn north to Cherbourg. It was opposed by two German infantry regiments supported by three or four artillery battalions. The 60th was to lead the assault on June 14. Urban's 2/60th was in the lead, with other infantry forces flanked on the left and right.
"The major effort of the Corps is now to cut the peninsula."
The 60th immediately began moving westward, having to eject German defenders village by village, as it worked to secure the Douve Line.
To discuss Lt. Urban's experience after landing, I need too point out two small villages along the Douve Line: Renouf and Orglandes, each circled in red.
This map shows Renouf by the red dot, Orglandes by the blue dot. The red arrow on the right approximates the 9th ID moving off Utah Beach to a location south of the 4th ID. The red arrow on the left shows the approximate Douve Line.
"When his company had been held up of over an hour by extremely heavy machine gun fire from an enemy strongpoint, Staff Sergeant Alexander led his squad forward to attack the enemy position. As he moved ahead of his men across the fire-swept terrain, Staff Sergeant Alexander was seriously wounded, but nevertheless continued to lead his squad and direct their attack. He personally threw hand grenades into four enemy machine gun positions completely silencing the guns and inflicting numerous casualties on the enemy."
Capt. Matt Urban's valor fighting in the area of Renouf and Orglandes during these days is addressed in part of the citation to accompany the Medal of Honor later received by him. It described the fighting as follows:
The citation mentioned hedgerows. These presented a most difficult fighting environment for the Allied forces.
To the soldier of the day operating in this area, hedgerows were a nightmare. This is a present-day photo of hedgerows on both sides of the "street" in the near area of Reouf.
The editors of the Boston Publishing Company, in a book, The Medal of Honor: A history of Service Above and Beyond, described the conditions under which US forces including Urban fought in this stage of the war. They wrote.
"Urban led his company (F/2-60th Infantry) in fighting through French hedgerows, tree- and vine-covered banks of dirt that for centuries bounded the open fields of the northern French farming country. Each field had to be taken separately by the Americans, who battled to root out German machine guns and tanks dug in behind the natural walls of hedgerows. Each hedgerow taken meant another hedgerow to attack the end to the next field."
Charles Willsher, the Battalion Sergeant Major of 3-60th, recalled that the terrain of the Cotentin Peninsula was:
"Hedgerow country. Small fields with thick dirt embankments, trees and brush growing out of them. The Germans had dug deep trenches behind the hedgerows and covered them with timbers, so it was almost impossible for artillery to get at them. They had machine guns emplaced so they could fire through the hedgerows and had placed tanks, covering them with bushes. You had to practically dig them out.
"(The Germans) would withdraw a few hedgerows, leaving a small force to fight. It was slow going but we kept driving them out. Their snipers would kill off a few of us and then want to surrender. We didn't take many prisoners."
Indeed Urban and his Brothers in Arms were in French hedgerow country, known as Bocage Country. Bocage refers to a terrain of mixed woodland and pasture, with fields and winding country lanes sunken between narrow low ridges and banks surmounted by tall thick hedgerows that break the wind but also limit visibility.
This aerial photo shows bocage country on the Cotentin Peninsula.
This photo shows American soldiers cautiously working along the hedgerows to flush out German defenders.
This photo shows what it was like to fight in the hedgerows in July 1944.
The attack against Cherbourg and the northern Cotentin
You've seen this map before. The 9th ID and its 60th Infantry made it to Barneville sur Mers on June 19, 1944. By the time the 9th reached Barneville, much of the German army in this region was in full withdrawal toward Cherbourg. The peninsula was now cut in half, the southern flank was secured and there were about 40,000 German forces trapped in the northern half of the peninsula. British General Bernard Montgomery said the Germans were effectively "roped off."
Please recall that Urban had already been evacuated to England for his wounds.
Cherbourg fell to the Americans on June 27. The Germans had their backs to the sea, many units were scattered and not well controlled, easy subjects for surrender. Fighting in certain areas did continue but on July 1, 1944 all organized resistance had ceased. The first major objective of "Operation Neptune" had been achieved. The German commander, Lt. General Carl Wilhelm von Schlieben (to the left in the photo), and German Admiral Hennecke, in charge of port defenses (right), surrendered to Major General Collins (center) at Cherbourg. By now German leaders viewed Von Schlieben as the model of a very poor commander. Hitler took the fall of Cherbourg very hard. It foreshadowed the eventual fall of France to the Allies.
The German leadership assigned von Schlieben a bad rap. He was only 49-50 and had fought in two world wars. His command, the 709th Division was described by Joseph Balkowski in his book Utah Beach: The Amphibious Landing and Airborne Operations on D-Day, as "a pitiable outfit in which no one could take much pride, guarding Normandy's Cotentin Peninsula. It was a backwater thousands of miles from the Russian front, the place where most Germans thought the war would be decided."
While Capt. Urban was badly wounded and in hospital in England, the Germans had not stopped him yet. So let's move on to the next events.
Operation Cobra, the breakout from the Cotentin and pursuit through France and Belgium
At about the time US forces were moving against Cherbourg, planning was underway for "Operation Cobra," a plan for General Bradley's 1st Army to break through German defenses to the south and east of the Cotentin, in the areas of Ste Lo and Caen, both marked by black circles, left and right respectively. Recall that VII Corps went off Utah Beach up to Cherbourg. Within four days of taking Cherbourg, General Collins turned his VII Corps around and headed to the south, to Ste. Lo. General Montgomery's forces focused on Caen to the east. This effectively meant Allied forces would be breaking out of Normandy and into the heart of northwestern France. Best of all for the troops on the ground, it meant they would break out of bocage country and into the open.
Operation Cobra commenced on July 25 with concentrated bombardment by Allied aircraft. Regrettably, the bombing lacked accuracy and there was considerable fratricide.
That said, the bombing also incapacitated the German Panzer Lehr Division. The photo shows what is thought to be a knocked out Lehr Division tank. The bombing was so heavy that US engineers had to spend considerable effort to repair roads and bridges so the infantries could pass.
As forces moved on the ground, the Allies were no longer involved in the intense infantry combat they experience at Normandy, but instead were now engaged in rapid maneuver warfare more out in the open. There were a total of eight divisions involved. The 9th and the 30th IDs kicked off the operation, held off the flanks in western France, and the 1st ID and 2nd Armored Division went forward in depth.
"I don't know how well they'll perform. They're pretty banged up. They're so worn out it's as if they have no more fight in them."
"Oh, they still have plenty of fight in them. They just need me to show them where to look."
Robert E. Hood, writing "Super Soldier" published in the December 2001 edition of Boys' Life, wrote about Urban. Hood wrote that Urban limped out of the hospital with a walking stick and pistol and hitchhiked to the front. Urban commented this way:
"I'm hobbling down the road and find these guys stalemated. They were being shelled and bombed. The artillery was zeroed in on them."
Hood wrote that Urban noted the men were lying in ditches and foxholes, and told them:
"On your feet soldiers. Follow me. Let's go."
Hood noted that one soldier reported later:
"A crazy officer appeared, yelling like a madman and waving a gun in his hand. He got us on our feet, gave us our confidence back and saved our lives."
There was one tank available. Two soldiers were killed by the Germans trying to get on board. Urban nevertheless moved toward the tank under a hail of hostile fire, saying later:
"My injured leg might have helped me, because I crawled up there like a snake."
The tank moved ahead, Urban manned the tank's machine gun and fired away, standing up, blowing out the enemy's machine gun and its antitank gun. (Photo for demonstration purposes only)
A staff sergeant with him said:
"Matt Urban moved forward, and sure enough the US Army moved forward."
Another rendition drawn from "10 True Tales: World War II Heroes," commented as follows:
"Fired up by his anger at the Germans and despair over the fate of his men, Urban ordered a private to drive him to St. Lo. A short while later, they approached the rear of an intense battle. His men looked tired and timid, not anything like the bold and daring troops he had led the previous month. Urban got up and out of the jeep and told the acting commander:
"'I'm retaking command of Company F. Come on men! It's time we turned those Krauts into sauerkraut. We're gonna kick them outta here, and I'm gonna lead the way.'"
The Medal of Honor citation for Urban described this fighting as follows:
With regard to the wounds on August 2, the battalion surgeon told him, "Your wounds are serious, and you should be evacuated. You need time to recover." Urban replied, "Nonsense I've been nicked up a little but, but I'm better off here than in the hospital. Case closed." Then on the 15th, he was hit by shrapnel from a grenade while issuing orders to his men. The doctor commented that he knew it was a waste of time trying to convince Urban to go to a hospital, so he pulled out as much shrapnel as he could find, sewed him up, and permitted him to return to his unit.
No need to memorize this map. The red arrow points to St. Lo, and you can see how the VII and V, VIII and XV corps were able to breakout and head into the heart of France. The 9th ID, however, would head eastward.
Liberation of Paris
Neither Generals Eisenhower or Bradley were eager to liberate Paris. They felt they could encircle Paris and go in later. Their top objective was to get to Berlin before Christmas. They did not want a long siege such as the Soviets encountered at Stalingrad and Leningrad, and they both knew the Germans had been preparing to destroy Paris if they could not defend it.
However, French General Charles DeGaulle threatened to call for an urban insurrection, and indeed strikes did erupt throughout the city beginning on August 19. Furthermore, the Germans had begun leaving Paris in early August headed to the east. This photo shows French citizens fighting against the Germans.
As a result, DeGaulle ordered his 2nd Armored Division to break away from the US V Corps and proceed into Paris.The photo shows French General Leclerc with the 2nd Armored Division in Paris. The Germans had already been leaving, but destruction of the city remained a real possibility. Parisians began armed insurrection against the Germans who remained in the city. Eisenhower in turn ordered the US 4th and 28th IDs to go in to support the 2nd Armored.
The German garrison put up a fight, but was too weak to take the offensive. The Parisians were running out of ammunition. Fighting peaked on August 22. On August 24 French General Leclerc sent in the 9th Armored Co., mostly veterans of the Spanish civil war, to inform the Germans the entire 2nd Armored would enter the city on August 25.
The French invited the 28th ID to triumphantly enter Paris with them on the day of the surrender, August 25, 1944.
Off to Belgium
The 60th Infantry in the meantime had swung out of St. Lo, crossed the Seine River to Melun, then crossed the Marne river at Meaux, France. The 60th crossed into Belgium north of Hirson, France on September, 2, 1944. The 2-60th Infantry, Urban's battalion, was ordered to find a safe place where troops and supplies could cross the Meuse River near Heer, Belgium. Heer is across the river from Givet, France at the tip of a sliver of land that protruded from France into Belgium.
It was the 4th of September, 1944 when the 60th contacted the enemy again, near Givet, France. The German Army retreated across the Meuse River. The 2-60 reached the river but encountered strong German defenses. The Germans pounded the 2-60 with artillery, small arms and mortar fire and the battalion had to stop. Urban saw that the mission was now in jeopardy, left the command post, and moved to the front lines. Still limping, Urban reorganized his troops, and led the charge across an open field. They came under heavy machine-gun fire. Urban was hit in the neck.
Urban passed out, a medic shot over to him, worked to stop the bleeding, and put a tube down his throat so he could breathe. Litter bearers came to him and took him to the rear. A priest came to his side and Urban thought he might be dying. The battalion surgeon arrived, told him he had to be evacuated immediately because he had a life-threatening wound, and of course, Urban argued saying he had to remain with his troops and complete the mission. Incredibly, suffering great pain and trying to remain conscious, he jotted down a new attack plan, gave it to a sergeant and told him to give it to the acting commander. Urban still refused to be evacuated until later in the day, when he heard his forces had secured a crossing point. He was placed on a hospital ship for England.
I feel compelled to note that the book 9th Infantry DIvision: Old Reliables, edited by John Sperry, tells a slightly different story about crossing the Meuse. This book says that the first major goal of the 9th ID was to cross the Meuse at Dinant, which is just a bit to the north of the Heer crossing I have described. The book says that "rubber boats and pontoon bridges were wrestled down the steep banks of the river's edge." The 1-39th Infantry sent its initial wave of crossing on September 5 … North of Dinant, the 60th Infantry established a firm bridgehead, though at a cost of eighty percent losses for the 2nd Battalion."
I have not been able to resolve this, Dinant or Heer. I will say that most of the sources I have found say they crossed "near Heer." Dinant is only 12 km or six miles or so from Heer. About all I can say is these are US forces crossing the Meuse on September 6. My gut instinct is these are men from the 60th Infantry crossing at one of the two areas I described.
Whatever the case, all the men in Urban's company were either taken prisoner or killed attempting to secure the crossing point, and Urban was rushed to hospital in England.
Again, the Citation to Accompany the Medal of Honor for Lt. Colonel Urban described the events as follows:
That sums up the main events and the environment experienced by Lt. Colonel Urban for which he would later receive the Medal of Honor. All these events occurred in Europe.
I learned that Urban had been with F/2-60th Infantry since it landed in North Africa in November 1942, prior to his involvement in France and Belgium. His company landed in Morocco and fought its way to Tunisia, Sicily and Italy before being withdrawn back to England to prepare for the Normandy invasion. Let's move to those events.
Operation Torch Invasion of North Africa
Urban began his service with the Army on July 2, 1941, reporting to the 60th Infantry at Ft Bragg, North Carolina.
"Matt Urban, weighing only 160 pounds, boxed his way into the finals of the Mideastern Intercollegiate Boxing Association. Fighting many in the 175 lb. class, Urban won all his bouts. In the match the photo was taken the decision went to a boxer named Woyciesjes who along with the crown thought Urban had won."
But it's now 1941, the British had been fighting the Germans in WWII since 1939, and Matt Urban is entering the US Army.
By way of a bit of background, FDR first met secretly wth Churchill in August 1941 aboard the USS Augusta heavy cruiser in Placentia Bay, New Foundland (photo applies). They agreed that the US would conduct an amphibious landing in North Africa, the first substantive combat involvement by US forces in the European war. FDR agreed to this at a time where the US was publicly still neutral. His agreement at the tim was a secret.
The Japanese attack on the Hawaiian Islands on December 7, 1941 resulted in Germany declaring war on the US on December 11, and the US declaring war on Germany and Italy that same day. So the US was now in the European war. Not only in it, but had vowed to conduct a “Germany first” strategy. "Germany first" meant defeating Germany was the number one priority, and the war against Germany would get highest priority for resources. That was despite the fact that US forces had a major war unfolding in the Pacific.
The top British and American military leaders met in Washington from December 22, 1941 through January 14, 1942 in what was known as the Arcadia Conference. There they confirmed the US would invade North Africa in late 1942, also a secret.
To complicate matters, German forces were in Egypt. Britain, which had once colonized Egypt and then assigned it protectorate status, was compelled to protect the Suez Canal. As a result, Britain's Western Desert Force advanced from Egypt to defeat the Italians and occupy much of Libya. Italian and German reinforcements (the beginning of the Africa Korps) began arriving in January 1941.
Rommel began a limited offense in late March 1941 and by September was able to push the British out of Libya to positions at El Alamein in north-central Egypt. Rommel was unable to advance and they fell back.
British Field Marshal Montgomery and his 8th Army pushed the Germans out of El Alamein, close to Cairo and by October 1942 had recaptured Tripoli, in Libya (off this map to the west). After considerable warfare, Rommel was forced to withdraw to Tunisia where he was to make his last stand.
Lt. General Dwight Eisenhower, USA was named overall commander for "Operation Torch."
The invasion force consisted of three task forces:
- Western Task Force targeted at Casablanca, Morocco, Major General George Patton, USA in command
- Center Task Force (II Corps), the largest of the three, targets at Oran, Algeria, Major General Lloyd Fredendall, USA in command
- Eastern Task Force targets at Algiers, British Army Lt. General Kenneth Anderson in command.
The 9th ID was assigned to the Western Task Force along with the 2nd Armored and 3rd Infantry Divisions. However, the 39th Infantry of the 9th ID was assigned to the Algiers landing.
This map reflects the overall plan. Note that German reinforcements moved from Sicily to Tunisia to establish a last defense bridgehead there. We'll discuss Tunisia at some length later. It is fascinating.
"Operation Torch" landed 100,000 U.S. and British troops at nine beachheads along the Moroccan and Algerian coasts, assisted by 670 vessels and heavy air cover. It was an eight-day operation. This photo shows them landing near Algiers
Lt. Urban’s 60th Infantry, marked by the red circle, landed in an amphibious assault at Green Beach, Port Lyautey, French Morocco on November 8, 1942. The area was defended by the French Vichy forces, those loyal to Germany and to Germany’s puppet French Vichy government in southern France. The Vichy government maintained armed forces abroad in France’s colonies until the Vichy government fell.
The hope was that French Vichy forces would present little opposition to the landings. However, the Vichy troops put up a stiff defense of Morocco. French forces resisted the landings with small arms and cannon fire from the Kasba fortress. French defenders fought vigorously and it took three days to capture the fortress. This photo shows the fortress after the battle was over.
Lt. Urban was assigned as Morale and Special Service Officer with the 9th Division and was tasked to prepare entertainment for the combatants as they returned from battle. Ha — He would have none of that.
One battalion of the 60th was met by French tanks while the other two battalions were strafed by French aircraft. There was also considerable action between US and French warships including US aircraft from carriers offshore. Furthermore French and German submarines engaged US warships, though with little effect.
Word reached Urban that the 60th was meeting resistance, so he rowed himself ashore in a rubber raft with another soldier to get into the fight. He was technically Absent Without Leave, AWOL. Once on the beach he and his mate came under heavy fire. He replaced a wounded platoon leader and was promoted to executive officer of F/2-60th Infantry, that is F Company, 2nd Battalion (Bn), 60th Infantry Regiment. The 2-60th’s objective was the Kasba fortress. It had landed at Green Beach on the south side of the Sebou River in two prongs, both of which convened at the Kasbah (Citadel) at Mehdia between November 8-9, 1942. The battle was very difficult but the 2-60th, with help from naval gunfire, prevailed. That said, it was most certainly a baptism by fire for the 9th Division. The fight for this area cost the US 79 KIA and 250 WIA. The 2-60th earned the nickname “Scouts Out.”
As an aside, Urban’s colonel threatened him with a court martial for disobeying orders but that did not come to pass. Instead he received a Silver Star and a Purple Heart.
Finally a truce was declared on November 11, 1942. This photo shows French General Auguste Paul Nogues (left), the French resident-general of Morocco, arriving at Fedala to negotiate an armistice, 1I November 1942. He is met by Col. Hobart R. Gay, representing General Patton.
Following this, the plan was for the 9th ID to regroup at Port Lyautey. It took until early January 1943 for all of the 9th Division and its equipment to get there. The 39th Infantry remained in Algiers. Please recall that the British 8th Army was moving westward from Egypt and Libya, the idea being to trap the Germans in the middle in Tunisia.
Hitler decided his army could - will hold Tunisia, but it had to be reinforced. Between November 1942 and January 1943, some 112,000 German troops and 101,000 tons of supplies and equipment had made it to Tunisia by sea and air.
Field Marsh Rommel’s army was retreating from the British, but was nonetheless able to reinforce the Tunisian bridgehead. Hitler wanted to prevent an Allied move against southern Europe, and he also wanted to protect Italy’s dictator, Mussolini who was in political hot water at home largely because of his alliance with Hitler.
Let’s pause for a quick war planning perspective.
I had mentioned earlier that the US was not keen on "Operation Torch," but instead wanted to conduct the cross-Channel invasion of the Continent and drive to Berlin. The US wanted to open that front in western Europe to take pressure off the Soviets in the east. FDR gave in to Churchill who preferred employing his strong navy for amphibious landings and Mediterranean Sea operations. He also felt the US was not ready to go to France yet. It was only 1943, and Churchill’s generals believed the US military was not prepared for such a massive crossing of the English Channel that would be required. But Churchill also had a larger plan — from North Africa, launch across to the sea to capture Sicily, then invade Italy, drive the Germans to the north and open a second front on Germany's underbelly.
Churchill and FDR and their chiefs of staff met again in Washington for fourteen days, May 12-25, 1943.
FDR was not keen on putting large numbers of ground forces into Italy. Churchill argued that the number one goal at present ought to be to eliminate Italy from the war. There was a lot of horse-trading during the conference. The US agreed to invade Italy, but listed out a bunch of provisos affecting where force levels would be placed, the Mediterranean or England.
Actually, the militaries of both countries had already planned for an invasion of Sicily set for August 1943.
There also was an agreement at this conference to mount a cross-Channel operation with a target date May 1, 1944. But here again, that's about as far as the political leaders went. As you know, this was the political genesis of "Operation Overlord," the invasion of Normandy, France that began in June 1944.
The "Operation Torch" invasion of western North Africa in November 1942 was successful, but the remaining challenge was to guarantee easy access to Italy or southern Europe. That meant Tunisia would have to be taken. The loss of Tunisia would mean the Germans and Italians would have to acknowledge the loss of all North Africa.
For the immediate term then, the Mediterranean Campaign would have the focus. The invasion of North Africa opened up a clear avenue to Sicily, and thence to Italy.
The US forces would have to advance eastward from Algeria to Tunisia by land. The British would come in from the south. Bizerte (top black circle) and Tunis (bottom black circle) were the prime Allied objectives in Tunisia. This marked a major change in Allied operations, from one of amphibious landings to massive employment of air power and land operations far inland.
The port cities of Bizerte and Tunis lay on separated coastal flatlands interrupted by lakes and marshes and surrounded by hill masses extending from higher ranges to the west. I will concentrate on Bizerte since that was the 60th Infantry objective.
We often think of Tunisia as a place with a lot of desert sand. It certainly does have that. But mountain ranges and passes ring the Tunisia coastal plains. Kasserine Pass, shown in the photo, is one of the more famous. Hills and mountains were in the north and then desert expanses to the south.
However, such changes would demand about two months preparation, and the Allies needed to wait for the weather to clear. Furthermore, there was considerable squabbling among them.
Effectively, the plan to take Tunis quickly failed and would have to be put on hold. Bizerte and Tunis would have to wait. The fighting then turned to the south. from where the British were trying to approach.
The 9th Division started moving out from positions in Morocco on January 31, 1943 and arrived in Tiemcen, Algeria for a short stop. The division’s artillery units moved out on February 17, 1943 bound for Tebessa, Algeria on Tunisia’s western border to help fight off Rommel. Tebessa was to be a major Allied supply base. The rest of the division left Tiemcen on February 19, making its way through wet snow and mud all the way to Bou Chebka just inside Tunisia’s western border, just southeast of Tebessa. It got there by February 27, 1943. During this period, the 39th Infantry rejoined the division. I do not know the exact route the 9th ID took, but in looking at this satellite image, the country was rough and not very hospitable.
The battles fought in Tunisia were many, vicious and bloody. Considerable combat occurred, often see-saw in character, far too complex and ferocious to describe here. Montgomery’s 8th Army was able to push northward from the south while the US forces, mainly II Corps, came through the north. All hands experienced high casualties.
I am going to have to limit my descriptions of events from when the 9th ID arrived at Tebessa in late February to the time the Germans and Italians beat feet for Sicily, giving up on Tunisia and all North Africa. I want to focus on two events I know involved Lt. Urban.
I mentioned earlier that Major General George Patton took command of the II Corps on March 6, 1943. Eisenhower also promoted him to lieutenant general, as shown in this photo.
Recall that British forces were coming up from the south and that Bizerte and Tunis were for the moment on the back burner. Operations now were focused on southern Tunisia. The British considered the American II Corps at this point to be weak, lacking the capacity to conduct full-scale operations, which is part of the reason Patton was brought in. Both Generals Patton and Bradley agreed it was weak. Therefore II Corps was to play a subsidiary role, draw enemy forces away from the British, and experience a succession of confidence building wins on the battlefield, however small they might be. The objective was to enable the British to break through enemy lines and drive northward. As you might expect, Patton did not relish any subsidiary role.
It's March 15, 1943 and II Corps consisted of the 1st, 9th and 34th IDs, the 1st Armored Division, the 13 Field Artillery Brigade and seven battalions of the 1st Tank Destroyer Group. Plans for II Corps were changed several times.
Patton's primary objective after taking command was to secure the Maknassy Pass (top right black arrow) which would then allow the II Corps and others to run through the El Guettar Pass (lower black arrow right) and break out into the Tunisian coastal plain. The 9th ID was teamed with the 1st ID and 1st Armor. I have read the details on all the maneuvers and fighting that occurred and would simply say there were a lot of both which I am unable to summarize here effectively.
I do want to highlight two events, however, that involved Lt. Matt Urban.
First, to get to the objective areas meant having to move near the Kasserine Pass. It was a two mile gap in the mountains in Tunisia.The Allies had failed miserably fighting in the pass in February 1943. That was part of the reason Patton was put in charge of the II Corps. But it is March now. I have found a report that said Urban was with the 60th Infantry near the Pass. He reportedly knocked out a German observation post single handedly. He then led his F/60th in a successful frontal assault on strong enemy positions. He was injured in his hand and right arm. For his efforts at Kasserine Pass, he received two more Silver Stars, a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart.
Second, the 60th Infantry was attached to the 1st Armored Division and together they moved to the south, to Maknassey. Together they took Maknassey on March 22, 1943 defeating the 21 German Panzer Division. Maknassey is located on the eastern edge of the Atlas Mountains, as you can see, on a fairly flat and even plain. However, the Americans were unable to move through the Maknassey Pass (marked by a black arrow) and were told to abandon the effort to move through the pass for the moment. The 1st Armor left some tanks there along with the 60th Infantry and then headed to a location where it could be used elsewhere.
Sgt. Earl G. Evans, a member of Urban's unit wrote this about Urban and Maknassey:
"The major (Urban), only a lieutenant at the time, was wounded in Maknassy, Tunisia and refused to be evacuated. He followed up this refusal by taking out a combat patrol. At another time in Tunisia, our battalion successfully halted a German counterattack, and it was through the major’s efforts that we succeeded. As our outfit was falling back, the major held his ground and grabbed the closest German. He killed him with a trench knife, took the German’s machine pistol, and fired at the onrushing enemy."
The Citation to Accompany the Silver Star mentioned this incident like this:
"On **March 1943, he personally led a two-man patrol back of the enemy lines, and knocked out an enemy observation post that had been directing source of artillery fire, with hand grenades. After being wounded on another patrol in the morning, he returned for medical aid and then volunteered to lead another patrol that same afternoon. He was a source of confidence to his men and a source of cheer to the wounded.
I leave all the tumultuous events of March 1943 with that.
The legend of Urban's heroism under fire kept building in the assault on Hill 609 (Djebel Tahent) in North Africa, though I have not been able to find specific references to events involving him. But he was surely there with F/60th Infantry. I want to talk about Hill 609 a bit and on tasks assigned to the 60th. For me, the geography and military challenges are fascinating.
I was surprised to learn of Tunisia's landscape in this region. Here are a couple of examples.
During April 1943, the 60th Infantry found itself fighting hill battles much like would be fought later in Vietnam. You may wish to browse a story on "RT Breaker Patrol, the Hill Battles of Vietnam." Fundamentally the hills in the area of 609 offered the enemy good line of sight to see the Allies approaching and good positions for artillery to rain down on the Allies, much as the hills surrounding Khe Sanh offered the North Vietnamese similar advantages.
The Allies had to overcome these hills in order to get to Bizerte and Tunis. The Allies attacked five major Axis strongholds, all defending the approaches to Bizerte and Tunis:
- Hill 609 (Djebel Tahent): US 34th Infantry Division
- Takrouna: British 8th Army
- Longstop Hill: British 78th Division
- Goubellat Plain: British 6th Armored Division up against most of the enemy’s remaining armor
- Djebel Mansour: French 19th Corps (Corp Franc d’Afrique: CFA)
Let's take a quick look at the geography involved in each.
Hill 609 (our focus in a moment)
Goubelatt Plain (scene of great tank battles)
All US and British-led Commonwealth units, the latter coming up from the south, fought for yards, not miles. They pressed forward taking land throughout northern and northeast Tunisia nonetheless. There were an incalculable number of incredible acts of courage, many recognized posthumously. I want to focus on 609 and two hills near it, Green and Bald Eagle, the latter two assigned to the 60th.
Let's now return to 609. Hill 609 presented the major obstacle, arguably one of the most difficult objectives in Tunisia. It was 609 meters high, or 1,990 feet.
One author described 609 this way:
“(609) was an enormous mass of rock, its lower slopes covered with vegetation and lined with a number of crude rock walls twisting along the slopes. Direct approach from the west was extremely difficult since the face of the mountain rose almost sheer. On the eastern face, however, an easier approach was possible.”
Consideration was given to by-passing 609. But General Bradley rejected it and ordered the 34th ID to take it. But attacking Hill 609 was more complicated than attacking that one hill. George F. Howe, writing “Northwest Africa: Seizing the Initiative in the West” for the US Army, wrote this:
“Hill 609 could be captured and retained only by driving the enemy from adjacent hills which controlled the approaches.”
Rick Atkinson, a Pulitzer-Prize winning author and military historian, wrote this about 609:
“Except for a small olive grove 500 yards from the southern slope, the terrain offered little cover to attackers, while the limestone palisades provided countless knobs and crevices to hide defenders.”
The reality was that Hill 609 was part of an entire hill complex that presented a most formidable fortress wall preventing II Corps from heading toward Bizerte. The complex of hills was part of the Atlas Mountains stretching through Anergia, Morocco and Tunisia.
In looking at this map, you can get a sense for the rough terrain surrounding 609. The Allies approached 609 from four directions. The approach from the west and north of 609 had to pass by Hills 435 and 490 to the west. Then southeast of Hill 609 is an expansive hilly area with two rows of ridges, circled in red. There are a host of prominent hills all around, too many to mention and point out here.
This old photo gives you an idea of what I mean. You can see 609, with 490 to its west and 531 to its east. But this view can be a bit deceiving. Note Hill 609 to the right, and Djebel El Hara (Hill 375) to the far left, actually west of 609. Here's a different perspective.
The point I wish to make is Hills 609 and Djebel El Hara are fairly close together. Jebel El Hara was fortified by the Germans, so they could lop down anything they wanted on forces moving up Hill 609, as they could from the other nearby hills.
I probably have beaten you down with all this geography. I wanted you to get a sense for it. Hill 609 was tasked out to one entire division, the 34th ID.
Green and Bald Hills
The 9th Infantry Division’s Area of Responsibility (AOR) was a bit to the north. The leadership viewed its offensive as secondary in the overall scheme, though no one would deny taking and holding them was crucial — a debate of superlatives. This map shows that the 9th Infantry Division’s task in the 609 drama was to take Green Hill and Bald Hill to the northwest of 609, shown by the two green arrows, and at the same time proceed to the northeast toward Bizerte (red circle).
I've played around with a map designed for other purposes but it shows nicely what I want to show you. There were two main roads from Algeria into Tunisia, each marked by a black arrow. The key to the road highlighted by the top black arrow was Mateur, circled in red. Take Mateur and you can go straight into Bizerte, also circled in red. The other road led to Tunis. I will concentrate on the road marked by the top arrow and Mateur. Please also note the town marked by the black circle, Djefna. I need to jump around a bit here but try to keep this map in mind along with the locations I've highlighted —- the top road leading directly to Bizerte through Mateur, and the town of Djefna marked with the black circle.
The 9th ID was sent over these northern hills rather than along the lower ground so that it could flank what was known as the Djefna (Jefna) area; that is, be present on both sides of the Djefna. The Djefna area was a flat plain running between the heavily fortified Green Hill (396) and Bald Hill (556), on this view marked by the red arrow following the road. Most importantly, it commanded the road to Mateur.
You will recall from a map I showed you earlier that Djefna was on the main road to Mateur and now you know that Bald Hill and Green Hill straddled Djefna, so the 9th ID had a big job on its plate to get those two high points away from the Germans and Italians.
The Djefna, when compared with the rest of the terrain in the area, was relatively flat. However, George Howe, writing "Northwest Africa: Seizing the Initiative in the West" for the US Army, wrote this:
"The enemy had had months to develop strongly some of his most advantageously situated defensive positions. He had excavated dugouts with pneumatic drills, and had strengthened them with concrete. Defiles between hills and approaches up the slopes and in the draws were freely sown with antipersonnel mines. Routes likely to be used by American patrols, and good points of observation which the enemy would have to evacuate as he retired, were also heavily mined. The 47th Infantry, for example, found one small area of 50 by 100 feet in which as many as 600 mines had been placed."
As an aside, a defile is "a steep-sided, narrow gorge or passage, sometimes so narrow that it required troops to pass in single file."
The Corps Franc d'Afrique accompanied the 60th Infantry. The 60th and French were to drive eastward and extend various flanking movements executed by the other regiments all the way to the sea. It is my understanding that the 9th ID's artillery outmatched the Germans and Italians. On one day, for example, the 26th Field Artillery Battalion fired more than 4,000 rounds with devastating effect. The Germans began withdrawing on May 1. The 9th hit both Bald and Green Hills with heavy air bombardment and artillery fire. The Germans were heavily entrenched there with well-prepared foxholes and emplacements on the forward slopes of the hills. Incredibly, however, the Germans withdrew. Every tim the Germans withdrew they were congregating farther and farther into the northeast until they would reach a point where they were trapped.
The 9th had to move through dense underbrush and over steep rocky crevasses and cliffs. Its troops had to traverse other nearby hills. They moved their supplies with them by mules. The photo shows a 60th Infantry soldier moving through that kind of growth with his mule. By May 3 the 9th ID and Corps Franc d'Afrique prevailed. The 34th ID prevailed at 609 and on that same day Mateur fell.
The road to Bizerte was now open. Alan Moorhead, author of The Desert War: The Classic Trilogy on the North African Campaign 1940–43, wrote this about Mateur:
"Sejenane was a wayside railway town in the wet cork forests on the way to Mateur. Whoever held Mateur held Bizerte, and whoever held Green and Bald Hills outside Sedjenane held Mateur."
So that was the name of that game. The 9th ID and its three regiments, one of which included Matt Urban, prevailed and held those hills.
For the 9th ID, the terrain consisted mostly of coastal hills. Here you see 9th ID men on patrol near Bizerte. But once the 9th got past the larger fortified hills, they were on lower rolling country and moved eastward swiftly.
The final American offensive of the campaign began on May 6, 1943.
In late April 1943 the Allies decided to make a major coordinated push across the Italian-German Bridgehead, noted in red on the map. The red arrows point to the general movement of the 9th ID. Recall that the 9th ID fought for Green and Bald Hills. This opened the road to Mateur and the 1st Armored Division took it, straight into southern Bizerte while the 9th ID moved back up north and came in from that direction.
German and Italian generals began surrendering on May 9. Axis forces had been surrendering in such great numbers they were clogging the roads. Some 230,000 German forces surrendered and became POWs.
With US forces pushing the Axis eastward and out of Bizarre, British forces moved against Tunis and on May 13 capitulated. By July 1943 the Allies were using the Bizerte port.
Effectively the Tunisia campaign, which lasted six months, was over. The Axis had lost North Africa.
Following the Allied victory in North Africa, the 9th Infantry Division was withdrawn to England. Urban was confined to a hospital in southern England.
With Tunisia won, Allied Forces crossed the Mediterranean Sea, and invaded and took Sicily. The 9th ID landed at Palermo, Italy on August 9. It then was moved to England. The Allies expected easy going in Italy, but experienced anything but that. The invasion of Italy proved to be a most difficult endeavor.
"Urban was the epitome of the college educated OCS (Officer Candidate School) graduate who could command everything from an infantry platoon to a battalion with a natural but formerly unsuspected talent for combat leadership."