Hill 122, only a few kilometers south of the American lines, remained the commanding terrain feature of the entire peninsula, and the enemy used it to good advantage.
If the hill should fall, the Germans would be deprived of their eyes ; it was vital that the hill should fall. On the eastern side of the Cotentin peninsula was the city of Carentan ; on the western side, the city of La Haye-du-Puits, each located near the coast. In the center of the peninsula a large swampy area called Prairies Marécageuses de Gorges (Gorges marshy meadows) virtually denied all military traffic through it and divided the peninsula into two sectors. Locked tightly to the western portion of the Prairies, at the village of Beau-Coudray, was the formidable Mahlman Line.
It was along this line that the enemy intended to make his stand, from Beau-Coudray west to Hill 122, on whose southern slopes was the Foret de Mont-Castre, and then westward once to the sea. This was the gate to victory. The cream of the German armies manned the gate, while guns bristled from every hedge, from each ravine, from every tree and bush. The defending forces had sworn an oath of fealty to their Führer and determined to stand to the death. Beyond this line no man would pass.
To the 90th Division was assigned the task of smashing the Mahlman Line at the Foret itself, the center and core of resistance. The first two days of July were devoted to the perfection of plans. Regiments and battalions moved into their positions near the line of departure. Division Artillery prepared its firing charts and data. The 359th was to attack on the right, the 358th on the left, the 357th in Division reserve and later to pass through the 358th to seize the high ground to the south. That was the initial plan, one that was destined to be altered a hundred times before the objective was reached.
The line of departure ran southeast from the village of Prétot down to Baupte on the northern edge of the Prairies. On July 3rd the attack began. Enemy reaction was immediate and violent. The 1st Battalion of the 359th encountered fanatical opposition in the orchards near Pretot.
Close-quarter fighting ensued and ended only with the utter annihilation of a complete enemy battalion. But the engagement drained the strength from the 1st Battalion, and after a short advance it halted. The 2nd Battalion pushed on to capture Sainte-Suzanne, always under enemy observation and subject to constant, murderous artillery fire.
At nightfall the Battalion's ranks were thinned and weakened but its lines held firm.
In the zone of the 358th, the 1st Battalion succeeded in reaching the vital crossroad north of Saint-Jores. In its attempt to take the village itself it encountered a fierce infantry-tank attack which forced it back to the crossroad. All day long the battle raged, with Saint-Jores the contested prize.
When evening came, the Battalion had made Saint-Jores American. On the left, the 2nd Battalion made good progress at first, but a strong Boche counterattack, led by tanks, blunted the momentum of the advance and forced a gap between the 1st and 2nd Battalions. In the face of never-ceasing fire, however, the gains were successfully consolidated.
The 3rd Battalion was thrown into the battle at noon in order to drive the enemy from the village of Les Sablons, where their counterattack had carried them, and also to close the breach between the 1st and 2nd Battalions. By nightfall, after repelling another determined counterattack, its mission had been completed.
During the first day, against the bitterest of resistance, the 90th Division had chalked an average gain of 1,200 yards along its front.
If there had been doubt before as to the enemy's disposition and strength within the Division zone, there was none that night. The cards were on the table. It was going to be a fight to the finish, no holds barred, everything goes.