First published on Warfare History Network, the article “Driant: Fighting on the Face of the Moon” by our historian Kevin M. Hymel, recounts the grueling battle for Fort Driant, which proved a formidable task that stymied the U.S. Third Army at Metz during WWII.
Driant: Fighting on the Face of the Moon
By Kevin M. Hymel
Before retreating from Fort Driant, Private Tom Tucker lit the fuse on 6,000 pounds of explosives. “We pulled the fuse lighter and took off,” recalled Tucker. As he raced toward the bottom of the hill, he suddenly hit the ground rolling. His helmet fell off, and he lost his rifle. “I thought I had been shot.”
Fort Driant: Breaking Patton’s Race to the Rhine
A retreat was not what Lt. Gen. George S. Patton envisioned when he planned his attacks east of Paris. He wanted to cross Germany’s Rhine River as the fall weather closed in, not fight a brutal slugging match around the French city of Metz. After the brilliant breakout from the Normandy beachhead in August, Patton’s Third Army found itself stalemated by fuel shortages, stiff resistance, strong enemy defenses, and a lack of air cover. Gone were the days of racing in all directions and liberating huge swaths of French soil from German control. The Allies’ fuel crisis of September had been resolved, but it gave the German Army time to reorganize.
The key to the defenses of the city of Metz was Fort Driant, an ancient fortress that had been integrated into the French Maginot Line. It functioned more as a beached battleship than a fort, boasting four batteries, each with three cannons. Two of the batteries housed 100mm guns, and two others housed 150mm howitzers. The trapezoid-shaped fort covered more than 350 acres and sat atop a steep hill overlooking the Moselle River. The whole area bristled with machine-gun nests and mortar trenches, connected by tunnels to the main fort.
Driant’s battery fire killed Americans and frustrated bridge-building efforts on the Moselle. If Patton wanted to plunge ahead, he would first have to neutralize Driant. That job went to the U.S. 5th Infantry Division—the Red Diamonds. “It was like the face of the moon up there,” recalled Tucker, an engineer with B Company, 7th Combat Engineer Battalion, attached to the 5th Infantry Division. Tucker had served with the division through the hedgerow fighting in Normandy and the race through Avranches, Orleans, Chartres, and Reims.
“We had relatively light resistance during the race across France—Driant was different,” said Tucker. One attack had already been repulsed, and the division was gearing up for another on October 3, 1944. To support the attack, engineers who had already advanced beyond the Moselle were called back for a vital mission.
“We were sent back across the Moselle to help put together snakes, which were like bangalore torpedoes,” Tucker recalled, “but, because they were so big, had to be pushed forward by tanks. When we arrived, someone had put a head on the snake to keep it from plowing into the mud. There was a welder there welding it while we stuffed it full of explosives.”
“We Had About 570 Casualties”
The attack commenced as planned, but Tucker and his squad’s work was in vain. Under cloudy skies, the 5th Infantry jumped off at noon, spearheaded by the snake-pushing tanks. Soon one tank lost its snake, while two tanks broke down. By the time the infantry reached the barbed wire surrounding the fort, all the snakes had become either detached or had been discarded.
Nevertheless, while Sherman tanks fired over their heads, the men charged the German defenses and headed for two concrete barracks, designated S and R. They captured both but…