Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Fireball


A night in late February 1945, Leutnant* Willi Hoffmeister sat shivering in the turret of his Tiger. They were, as near as he could figure, just east of the Roer River in the small town of Elsdorf. Of one thing he was certain, and only one thing, he was cold. Cold to the bone and the mists and fogs of the late winter just made things feel even colder.

He and his detachment of schwere Panzerkompanie** 'Hummel' had been sent out to hold the crossroads at this small village late the previous day. There were at least thirty infantrymen who had accompanied his three tanks, all of them riding on the backs of the Tigers, the Wehrmacht was running on fumes in more ways than one.

There were no trucks, no halftracks, no vehicles of any kind available for the landsers*** to move forward with them, so, like the Russians he'd seen a couple of years ago, the infantry squeezed onto the tanks, as best they could.

Willi, who had grudgingly accepted his promotion to officer rank a few weeks before, noted that the oldest of the infantry, the sergeant in charge, was probably fifty years old. The youngest of his charges looked like babies, he swore that the kids were about twelve, maybe younger.

They had rolled into Elsdorf long after sunset. There were no civilians in the village, the only sign that the place had ever been inhabited was a dead cow in the road.

"Okay boys, let's set up shop and see if the Amis will come to our little soirée."

His tank, 201, he directed to stop next to a building, there was no place to set up in cover, but at least the surrounding buildings would hide the silhouette of his Tiger. Another Tiger was dispatched to the left, the remaining one to the right, covering the three "main" streets running through the small town. His Tiger was on Gladbacherstraße apparently, if his map was correct. Now it was just a case of waiting on the Americans.

He was tired of retreating from the Amis and their swarms of Shermans. Terrible panzers but they moved quickly and there were so many of them. Now there were rumors of a new American tank, the Pershing according to the intel boys. With a bigger gun than his own Tiger if they were to be believed!

His job? Delay the Amis long enough for the rest of his unit and the unit it was attached to the time needed to pull back across the Rhine. They could stop these people on the Rhine. At least he hoped so.


"Why do we have to keep moving forward at night Sarge? Can't a man get a moment's rest in this man's army?"

"Quit your bitching, you can sleep when the war's over, if you last that long. You can bet the Krauts aren't sleeping. G-2 says they're falling back over the Rhine, if we can kill 'em on this side of the river, saves us the problem of trying to find a bridge and killing 'em on the other side of the river."

Sergeant First Class Buck Killeavy felt confident that the Krauts were on their last legs. All they'd come up against over the past week was old men and little kids with panzerfausts. No tanks, no vehicles whatsoever. The big M-26 Pershing he commanded was a far cry from his old Sherman. Lower to the ground, more heavily armored, and with a gun which, according to all accounts, rivaled the cannon on the Kraut Tigers.

But of course, that meant that his outfit got to "lead the charge" to the Rhine. G-2 claimed that the Krauts were done for, on their last legs, etc., etc. Of course, the bastards had said the same thing back in December when the Germans had come howling out of the mist, chewed his outfit up really bad and knocked them back ten miles. He's lost far too many friends during that mess. Payback time Hans, it's coming.


"Hear that Schmidt?"

"Jawohl Herr Leutnant, panzers to our front. Ami panzers!"

"Good boy! Get ready lads, our 'guests' seem to be arriving!"

As they waited, Willi gave a thought to two of his former crewmen on Panzer 413, his old Tiger which now sat rusting somewhere in Belgium. Feldwebel Horst Krebs was still his driver, he'd been offered a move up to gunner, but he loved driving the big tank. Panzerschütze Peter Schmidt, who'd been a green kid back in December, had moved up to loader, the kid was smart, learned quick and was a seasoned veteran now. Well, a veteran of an endless retreat in a lost war. Best not to think on that these days, his old gunner, Feldwebel Fritz Weber, had been arrested back in late January. Seems his father had written a letter to the local paper suggesting perhaps that Hitler needed to step down.

Then there was Georg Hansel, 413's old loader, he'd been killed on the road back to Monschau shortly after they'd had to abandon 413. A damned P-51 had dropped out of the sun and strafed the road before they had had time to take cover. Georg had been ripped to pieces by the attack, they left him there, no choice. The Ami Shermans weren't too far behind the P-51s, and the SS were shooting anyone who looked like they would fall out, given half the chance.

The new bow gunner was another kid, quiet. Johannes Krebs from Berlin. Horst swore the kid was a Red, on the run from the Gestapo, Willi didn't really care anymore. The kid did his job, no more, no less. The new gunner was another survivor from the old outfit, Stefan Klinker, experienced and a good man. But it was obvious he too just didn't care anymore, live or die, the war dragged on. At any rate, he supposed the war would be over soon. Willi didn't really care if he survived at this point. He was tired. Tired of it all.


Killeavy told his driver, Private First Class Clayton Jones, to advance slowly. He was still trying to figure out why his tank, nicknamed 'Fireball,' was leading the column of Shermans from a different outfit. Maybe the brass hats believed all the things they'd heard about the M-26 being more than a match for the Tigers and the Panthers they might encounter. Lord knows, the Shermans were easy meat for the big Kraut tanks, but in the dark and mist, he didn't feel comfortable about this mission. Not one bit.

In the dark, Killeavy's loader, Jack Camlic from Chicago nudged him, before he could speak, a panzerfaust flashed out of the darkness and slammed into the Sherman on their tail.

"Damn it Buck, there's Krauts in that alley!"

Killeavy dropped down into his hatch as Camlic opened up with the coax machine gun next to the big cannon. Before he could ask the kid what the blazes he was shooting at, all Hell broke loose.


"Enemy panzer front. Load panzergranate!" ****

Willi saw the winking from what had to be an MG not a hundred meters away. Klinker had the big 88 mm gun dead on, as the cannon recoiled Willi could see a flash on the armor of what had to be the biggest Ami tank he had ever seen. After the flash, he could see a bright glow, that round had penetrated.


Killeavy yelled at his crew to bail out, that last round had come right through the MG aperture, he sensed more than knew that his crew had taken casualties. He was marveling at the fact that he was untouched as he tumbled onto the engine deck of 'Fireball.'

Clayton and the bow gunner, Judson Monahan were the only other guys to get out. His loader and gunner were no where to be seen.

Killeavy saw the muzzle flash of what had to be a freaking Tiger, maybe a hundred yards away. The survivors of 'Fireball' fled to the rear, their path lit by a trail of brightly burning Shermans.


Willi's second round cause another bright flash on the Ami tank, followed by all the turret hatches blowing open, that round must have cooked off a round in the enemy's cannon. Before he could order Klinker to hold his fire, another round from the 88 flew down range. He didn't observe that one hit as to the front he saw another Sherman, damn things were as thick as May flies!

He saw the flash and felt the heat of the enemy shot burn overhead to slam into the building behind him. He was a bit shocked at the ensuing explosion, the Amis were trying to hit him with high explosive. Best to get out before they loaded armor piercing!

"Horst! Get us out of here, reverse, reverse, reverse!"

Weber slammed the gears into reverse and the tank jumped as it began to back up. Then they rolled up on something and the engine stalled.

"Damned cheap fuel! Hang on!"

Trying his best, Weber got 210's engine revving again, but something was wrong. He could neither go backwards nor forwards.

"Willi! We're hung up on something! Tank won't budge!"

Peeking out from his commander's cupola, Willi's blood ran cold, they were hung up in the rubble from the building the Amis had hit with that high explosive round. Machine gun rounds were starting to splat against the armor, ricocheting brightly into the mist.

"Out! Out! Out! Come on boys, or we're all dead!"

They left their Tiger in Elsdorf, but Willi and the crew of 210 made it to safety to the east of the town. They hitched a ride on one of his platoon's two surviving Tigers. Of the infantry who had gone in with them, maybe 12 were left. But they'd held up the enemy for another day.

But why? What was the point? The war was lost, only the killing continued.

(Source)


* Leutnant - Lieutenant
** schwere Panzerkompanie - heavy tank company
*** Landser - German army slang for an infantryman
**** Panzergranate, anti-tank ammunition

Sources of background material:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/M26_Pershing#World_War_II_in_Europe
http://www.hobbyhavoc.com/oldhavoc/index.php?topic=477.0;wap2
https://www.feldgrau.net/forum/viewtopic.php?t=14556
http://warfarehistorynetwork.com/daily/wwii/m26-pershing-americas-heavy-tank/
https://wolfenkrieger.deviantart.com/art/Pershing-vs-Tiger-in-Elsdorf-209551322

30 comments:

  1. A bit early in the morning to get my pulse racing.
    Another great chapter.
    (Holds imaginary gruel bowl towards computer monitor)
    Please sir, may we have more.

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  2. Ya.... John's comment is spot on..... that's one way to clear out the sleep from one's eyes. Adroit use of the keyboard Sarge! When you get the chance.....MOAR..... :)

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    Replies
    1. Thanks Nylon12. There will be more, the big question is when.

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  3. Damn, this is good stuff. Keep it up, Sarge!

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  4. What they wrote; me too.

    Thanks for the post.
    Paul L. Quandt

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  5. Much like the Allies at this point in the war, keep 'em coming, Sarge! Good Shtuff!

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  6. Just as I opened the post the sound of thunder rolled over the house and a few seconds later ther was a downpour.
    I can still hear the thunder in the distance.
    Really helps set the tone for this part of the story.

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    Replies
    1. Heh, I had to shut down the computer in the middle of this post as a thunderstorm passed overhead. When the power "flickered" I thought best to wait a bit.

      It did set the mood though.

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    2. Thunderstorm last night disrupted the server that hosts our printing server. You'd have thought Armageddon was upon us this morning. The phone wouldn't stop ringing long enough for us to reboot it. I'm pretty sure people were contemplating suicide. I know there were some threats of homicide, none from anyone I'd fear though. Unbelievable.

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    3. Here - multiple servers down, things needing resetting. As I'm not in IT, I just kick back and wait for stuff to be back up. I tell my colleagues, "this too shall pass."

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  7. I found your "Fireball". "T26E3, named “Fireball”, with the 3rd Armored Division. It fought in the Ruhr river sector, was engaged and hit three times by a concealed Tiger on 25 February 1945, at Elsdorf. The Tiger was then discovered, tried to back away to escape, but ran into debris and was immobilized. It was eventually abandoned by its crew. The M26 was later salvaged, repaired, and returned to combat. Another one of the same company later engaged and destroyed a Tiger and two Panzer IVs." on the Tank Ecny site. http://www.tanks-encyclopedia.com/ww2/US/M26_Pershing.php

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    Replies
    1. As you have ascertained, this tale is based on a true story. A bit of embellishment on my part for certain.

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    2. I know you always work on being a factual as you can.

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    3. Someone, might have been SCOTTtheBADGER, suggested a Tiger vs Pershing matchup, so I went a Googling and found that story. It fill the bill nicely.

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  8. Excellent. People tend to forget that there was bitter fighting right to the end, and even after. They all think the Bulge was the end of heavy resistance. (Same idiots that discount the fight on the Rhine as light action.)

    Nice way you brushed over the final acts of the Bulge there, while still telling us what happened.

    You definitely have a career as a writer in your future, once you grow up.

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    Replies
    1. Damn. Do I have to grow up? Can't I just pretend to be grown up?

      Thanks Andrew.

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  9. have you seen the famous footage of pershing-panther duel in front of the Cologne cathedral?
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D6LqB-RYUvY

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    Replies
    1. I have, most harrowing for the men of both sides.

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  10. Well done, as usual, Sarge! I've been enjoying this story since you began it.
    As a kid, I had a desire to be a tanker, & was all over WWII stuff. When I grew up.....OK, when I got older, I got smart & became a sailor on aircraft carriers instead. Who wants to be locked up inside a steel box, target for everybody, unable to get away easily.....
    Wait a minute--tanks have indeed sunk at times, but they generally don't sink when hit. Hmmmm...
    Maybe, like "grew up", "got smart" is only correct for a given value.
    Tennessee Budd

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    1. I too had dreams of being a tanker. Army wanted to make me a technician instead, so I joined the Air Force.

      But I still like tanks. Thanks Tennessee!

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  11. Hey AFSarge;

    Excellent Story, and the background totally tracks with what I know from the Germans at the end of the war. The Pershing should have been built sooner, the Allies knew that the Sherman was a good tank in 1942 was totally outclassed by the Germans in 1943/1944/1945 Something about not wanting to change the tooling during the war I believe. The Sherman was superior to the Japanese tanks but not to the Germans. The Panzer Mark IV, the Panther and the Tiger were better. The only thing the Sherman had going for it was maneuverability, gyrostablized gun, easy to repair and maintain and there were a crap load of them. The British did better upgunning the Sherman to the Firefly. The Americans finally did that, upgunning the Shermans from the anemic 75 mm gun.

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  12. Given the disparate ages of the German infantrymen--a middle-aged NCO and underaged privates--I'd guess they were probably Volksgrenadiere. Those soldiers emerged in large numbers during the Ardennes Offensive as "fillers" for an increasingly depleted Wehrmacht; regular soldiers to be sure but not the same quality as the men who they replaced. The bottom of the barrel, to be found when the Allies entered Germany proper, were the Volkssturm and the younger Hitlerjugend used as cannon fodder at the very end.

    My mother's older brother could very easily have been one of those Pimpfchen thrown into the meatgrinder had the Americans not overrun the Lampertheim area as quickly as they did; he died last year in his 70s....

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    Replies
    1. Those were horrible times, little kids and old men fighting tanks.

      Glad your uncle didn't have to go through that.

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Just be polite... that's all I ask. (For Buck)