Wednesday, June 3, 2020

The 3rd of June, 1944

Beach obstacles, Normandy
(Source)

Grenadier¹ Horst Mellanthin staggered into the old barn they had been using as a barracks since his unit had moved up to the Normandy coast. He was exhausted, having spent the bulk of the last three days working on the obstacles on the beach in front of their Widerstandsnest². Each day he managed to grab a few hours of sleep before heading to his machine gun post where he would spend four hours in the wee hours of the night. Then an hour or two of sleep, then do it all over again.

He was starting to get to know the men in his unit, at least the ones he saw every day. His sergeant was a tough old bastard (probably no more than 25, but to a 17-year old, that seems ancient) from Heinsberg, not that far from where he grew up. His name was Wolfgang Krause, he'd been in the Army since the age of 18, having enlisted in 1937. He had seen action in Poland, France, and then North Africa. He had been badly wounded there and had spent a long time, nearly two years, in hospital and rehabilitation. They had sent him to Normandy as the Army considered him too frail to serve in a front line infantry unit.

The machine gunner was Heinrich Dietrich, a city boy from Leipzig who had earned his assignment to this static division by virtue of having lost two fingers in Russia to frostbite, then having part of his foot shot away fighting partisans in Yugoslavia. Feldwebel³ Krause said that Dietrich made the perfect machine gunner, he couldn't walk worth a damn, therefore the odds of him running away were slim to none.

Dietrich's assistant gunner was actually a Pole. His name was Obergrenadier Jan Kołodziej, he had been swept up by the draft in Poland, the Wehrmacht was starting to not be overly picky about who they put in the Army. He seemed like a good guy to Horst, though Horst was a bit miffed that he was outranked by a Pole. He was a very hard worker but kept to himself. Probably because his German was heavily accented. Horst had seen him in the local village and he seemed very popular with the ladies.

None of the Germans realized that Kołodziej had attended university and spoke three languages other than Polish. Hus German was actually quite good, he just didn't want his fellow soldiers to know that. As a child he had been raised to hate two groups of people, the Germans and the Russians. As his mother told him, "At least you're still alive Jan!" Besides which, his French was good enough to get him in the good graces of most of the French in the area, when with them, he made no secret of his disdain for the Germans. It was also great for talking with the ladies!

Live fire training before D-Day

Private Jack Wilson and his good buddy PFC Bill Brandt were sitting in their squad's communal tent, sipping coffee and generally playing the "old soldier." They had no details to perform that afternoon and the Sarge had told them to just take it easy.

"Stay in the tent, if I need you for anything, I'll send someone. The rumor mill says we're moving out and soon. I'll believe it when I see it!"

As they sipped their coffee, a loud explosion went off over towards the supply tent. Wondering what the Hell was going on, they dumped their coffee and headed over that way.

When they arrived, the supply tent was shredded, there were at least three guys on the ground, not moving. A couple of others sat nearby, their uniforms shredded and bloody, with a dazed look on their faces.

"What the Hell happened here?" Bill asked a nearby corporal.

"Some rookie was issuing grenades, the pin on one caught on the edge of a crate, so he yanked it. The two guys who are still alive? They heard the spoon release and they ran for it. The others either didn't notice or didn't know what that noise was."

They'd both seen casualties before from training accidents, but damn, with the big day just days or hours away? Damn, killed in training. At that point the Sarge came up and told them to grab their gear. They were marching down to the pier, "right damn now! Move it!"

Marching to the embarkation point
(Source)

"This ain't how I wanted to spend the weekend, Bill. Stuck on a damn boat!"

"It's a ship Jack, the squids call 'em ships. Do you think this is it? Or is it another damned drill?"

"I dunno Bill, the officers all look kind of somber and grim. I think this is it. But dammit, spending the weekend on a boat, er, ship or whatever the Navy calls them. It ain't right."

Jack and Bill and the rest of their unit boarded the ships that would take them to the invasion beaches. Had to be France they all figured, though one guy had a hundred bucks on landing in Holland. "Closer to the Kraut homeland!" he would exclaim.

The weather had been nice all week, Jack noticed dark clouds building up to the west. To him he thought they were in for some rain. He also noticed the water outside the harbor was looking awfully rough. He double checked his pockets, making sure the seasickness bags were still there.

They were.




¹ I had this wrong the other day, the Germans stopped calling infantry privates Schütze in 1942. Thereafter they were called "Grenadier." Still the lowest rank in the infantry.
² Widerstandsnest - Literally "resistance nest," one of the many defensive posts set up by the Germans along the Normandy coast, and elsewhere.
³ Feldwebel - Sergeant, technically this was the lowest grade at which an NCO could wear a sword knot on parade on his sergeant's sword.

34 comments:

  1. Widerstandsnest. That is the word the guide used when we were standing on Omaha Beach, and I absolutely couldn't remember it.

    I worked a summer job in a small machine shop owned by a couple of older gents who were former Yugoslavian partisans. Interesting stories indeed.

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    1. Yugoslavia was a whole different war, partisan warfare is always nasty. In Yugoslavia you had at least two groups of partisans one, the Commies which Wikipedia seems absolutely in love with (big surprise there) and the royalist Chetniks. They didn't get along.

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  2. "the pin on one caught on the edge of a crate" -- There's a reason they were shipped in cardboard tubes in the crate, to cut down on this kinda thing... I'm sure if you were inventive you could find a way to screw it up, though...

    https://forums.g503.com/viewtopic.php?t=274124

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    1. Gotta give a fellow a little artistic license here. They were also shipped unfused. But at the point of issue who's to say they didn't pull them out of the tube, add the fuse, then give it to the guy who would take it into battle.

      There's many a slip 'twixt the cup and the lip. Applies to grenades as well.

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    2. Shipped in cardboard and unfused. But at one point they were taken out of tubes and fused and put back in crates. After all, a crate of grenades, unfused and still wrapped, is useless to anyone except as a box to stack with.

      You see it today even. Unfused, packed grenades get to their assembly point, and usually only qualified people assemble them. But there's always that one recruit, rookie, dufus, idiot or jerk who thinks he knows everything and "boom."

      It's why some of the funniest unfunny videos are those of grenade training, especially with some gurly men or straight-up gurls. Not talking about the female softball players or the guys who have at least played Little League. Talking about the Bradley Mannings and the girls with t-rex arms that can barely hold their purses. As I said, funniest not-funny videos watching one of the guuurly people limp-wrist a live grenade and watch the grenade instructors toss the limp-wrister away and then dive themselves.

      Remember, once the pin is removed, Mr. Grenade is not your friend. Nor the friend of anybody within the killing radius.

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    3. You're fine with the pin out, release the spoon and you have allegedly 3 to 5 seconds.

      Yup, BOOM!

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    4. ... Are there any GOOD grenade videos on the internet? I have this pet theory that any time you see a grenade in a video, something bad is about to happen.

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    5. Hahaha! There are a few that show the right way to do it, using live grenades too!

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    6. BOOM indeed. Saw this over at Peter's Place--

      https://bayourenaissanceman.blogspot.com/2020/06/that-was-heck-of-explosion.html

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    7. (Don McCollor)...there is an account in "Strong Men Armed" of a boot Marine holding a grenade (with spoon) in one hand and the pin in the other asking his Sarge "How do I get this back in?" The Sgt marched him up many ladders shouting "Grenade! Clear the way!". It was tossed over the stern as they both hit the (literal) deck). Then the Sarge kicked the boot back down many ladders to the lowest head in the ship where he spent the rest of the voyage on permanent latrine duty...

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  3. Good story, as usual.

    Rommel's plans caused the troops to be worked nigh-unto-death upon his fortifications. Which for many was a good thing as it got them fit and burned off any 'civilian fat' that they had remaining. And got them used to the layout of the land.

    In the beach picture, I wonder if the tracks in the fore-right are for transporting the makings of fortifications or were for the local fishing boat or life-boat. Tried looking it up but couldn't find out.

    As to the weekend on the boat, seem to remember something about the few days before June 6th. Yeah, not so bad if you were on an actual keeled ship, but one of the landing ships...

    Looking forward to the continuing saga of the grenadier. And your description of the perfect mg gunner? Pretty much what manned many of Germany's fortifications. Leave the people with all their working parts in the mobile units, the useful-but-broken can man observation posts, fixed guns, comm units and such. And they'll fight twice as hard because they can't run away.

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    1. That looks like a very temporary track doesn't it? Maybe mine carts to move stuff onto the beach?

      I read that one unit almost invaded Normandy all by themselves a day early. They got the recall order kinda late!

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    2. I'd wager it's new construction for moving obstacles, the dirt immediately around it is a different color than the rest and looks fresh. If it were civilian, it would be at least a few years old and the same color as everything else?

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    3. Also it looks pretty rickety, a temporary thing.

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    4. (Don McCollor)...There were two Brits that did land on Normandy's beaches (among many others) before the invasion. Not heros in the usual sense because they performed a mundane, thankless job. Swim ashore on a dark night from a motor torpedo boat a mile or so offshore onto a German patrolled beach, push a stake in the sand at waters edge, then crawl inland unreeling a beaded fishing line. At each bead, they would measure the beach gradient and take a core sample. Then they would swim back out and flash a light for the MTB to pick them up. They were never detected. The arrangement of the British landing force vehicles was not haphazard. Their Bobbin tanks (that would lay matting) were positioned so they could lay it where they KNEW there would be patches of soft sand that would bog tanks...

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    5. The Americans had their teams as well. Our problem is we never bought in to Hobart's "Funnies," the specialized armored vehicles of the 79th Armored Division. Very effective they were. We ignored them, to our peril.

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    6. (Don McCollor)...the Americans did adopt the DD Sherman tank - probably the most unseaworthy craft ever designed. Except at Omaha beach, they did fairly well. The Americans also contributed their own miracle, the DUKW ("Duck") amphibious truck. But they came into their own only after the initial landings...

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    7. The sea was too rough on D-Day for the amateurs trying to drive their DD tanks ashore. Two guys at Omaha got their tanks ashore due to a lot of pre-war experience with small boats.

      Some indicate that they were offloaded too far out to sea. There are historians who dispute that. Not everything Cornelius Ryan wrote was strictly "factual," and some historians since have repeated his errors. So some claim. I wasn't there.

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  4. You had a photograph of training at Slapton Sands..there was a disaster there too, courtesy of some S-Boote...carpe diem!

    The multi-kulti makeup of the defensive troops...see captured paybooks to taste the real confusion. And does it remind us of old Assyria, transplanting peoples to erase traditional loyalties? Anything comparable today?

    The political crapfight about how to deal with an inevitable breakthrough, has some parallels to the failure to end the horror in 1940....back then, the hot Generals stopped a fraction short, swampy-pants about logistics and fearing continued success, later they were chained to HQ approval for any counter-attack, directly against traditional German doctrine: Auftragstaktik. Shades of Alexander, ending in Feet of Clay. Parallels to today?

    Eagerly awaiting further instalments. Please, sombre respect, we tread upon dead men's bones as we dig our own graves...

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    1. If you visit the Commonwealth War Graves at Caen there are some very interesting stories to be told. Amongst the graves of the Commonwealth troops I spotted a grave of some dead Russians, with the appropriate Soviet Star on their headstones. The date of death was some time in 1945. I wonder what the story was behind that? The Commonwealth War Graves are a superb example of how a nation remembers its dead. All denominations and ranks are buried together with no distinction. I quite like that.
      Retired

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    2. That would be quite a story.

      Your folks do it right.

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  5. Keep your eye on that PFC Bill Brandt character. Sounds like a trouble maker. ;-)
    But the one we know is a really great guy.
    JB

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    1. JB - He's the more settled of the two buddies.

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  6. Two years earlier, PBYs were flying out of Midway. And at the same time as your story, on the other side of the world, ships set sail,for what would become The Marianas Turkey Shoot. It was a real big war.

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  7. Training accidents - the pits.

    My future bro-in-law + Phantom + strafing in ORI + (speed x earth) = not good!

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  8. WW2 the fuse on a frag was 7-10 seconds. Bad guys would throw them back. At some point the fuse was changed to 3-6 seconds.

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    1. Not American grenades - The Mk 2 used the M5, M6, M10, M11, or M204 series fuses. The early M5, and the later M6 and M204 series detonating fuses, were used on high explosive-filled grenades. The M10 and M11 series igniting fuses were used on low explosive-filled ones. The early fuses had many problems. In the M5, moisture could get in under the foil fuse cap, causing the weapon to fail to detonate. The early fuses were not completely silent and made a loud "bang" and produced sparks when activated. They also made a faint "hissing" sound while burning, potentially alerting the enemy of their presence. The M10, used during the interwar period, and the M10A1, used early in WWII, sometimes prematurely detonated when the flash from the primer hit the explosive charge rather than the delay fuse. They were replaced by the M10A2 and M10A3. A less common type of igniting fuse was the M11.

      The M6A4C had a delay of 4 seconds. The M5 and M11, like the M10, M10A1 and M10A2, had a delay of 4 to 5 seconds. The later M10A3 had a delay of 4.5 to 5.3 seconds. In 1944, the M6A4C was replaced by the silent and more reliable 4 to 5 second delay M204 or M204A1 fuse. Due to the large number of grenades already issued, few grenades with the new fuses were used in combat during WWII.
      (Source)

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