Friday, July 24, 2020

Cobra, Late July 1944

155 mm Howitzer of the 969th Field Artillery Battalion firing in support of Operation Cobra
National Archives

It was late in the afternoon, the day of the second massive screw-up by the flyboys. They had again bombed short, latrine rumors had it that a visiting three-star general had been killed along with another hundred G.I.s. Such things were well above his rank, he was glad that it was someone else who had been bombed and not his outfit. Yeah, he felt bad about that but it was the truth. Sgt Brandt was getting to be rather cynical these days.

He had three new guys in tow, well, they weren't exactly new, they were musicians out of Band Company, apparently the brass figured they needed guys carrying rifles more than they needed guys playing musical instruments. Sgt Brandt didn't mind, his squad was now back up to full strength, twelve men, eight of whom were combat veterans.

"Okay, here we are fellows, your new home, 1st Squad, 2nd Platoon. Grab a seat. Alright, now that we got those preliminaries out of the way, I've got promotions for some of you jokers: Red, Cat, Duck, and Bear, you are now elevated to the lofty position of private first class. That's like another four bucks a month, don't spend it all in one place."

"I've also reorganized you guys a bit. We finally got a hold of a Springfield with a grenade launcher attachment and a telescopic sight, Ollie you are now officially our squad grenadier/sniper. One of the new guys... what was your name again kid?" He asked pointing at one of the new guys.

"Virgil, Sarge, Virgil Kennedy."

"Right, Virgil here is going to be your number two. All that means kid, is that you get to carry extra rifle grenades and stay close to Ollie."

"Now that we have two B.A.R.s, which will be schlepped around by Red and Duck, Cajun you're still Red's assistant gunner, and Gammell, you're Duck's assistant. Which means you guys get to carry your own ammo, plus extra for the B.A.R., any questions?"

The men all looked at each other, and of course, one of the new guys raised his hand.

"Sarge, I got a question, what's my job?"

Sgt Brandt just looked at him for a long second, then said, "Shoot when I say shoot, at who I say to shoot at, run when I say run, dig when I say dig, and try not to get killed. That's your job. What was your name again?"

"PFC Dickenson."

"Geez, is everybody in the freaking band PFC or higher?" Cajun asked while looking at his own naked sleeve.

"I'm a private." Kennedy chimed in.

"Well ain't you special." Cajun said, frowning at the new guy.

"Knock it off. Okay, reorg, here it is - Thomas, Tremblay, Katz, Olson, and new guy, Kennedy right, you're in my section. Simpson, Gammell, Hebert, Dickenson, and, you new kid, what's your name?"

"PFC Jack Leonard, Sarge. I play the trumpet."

"Not out here you don't. Those guys I just named plus bugle boy here are all in Corporal Wilson's section. Questions?"

This time no one had any questions.

"Alright, get some chow, get some sleep, we're riding into battle tomorrow at oh-four-hundred."

"Riding?" Ollie asked hopefully.

"Yup, we're riding into battle with a couple of Shermans from the 745th tank battalion. We're the infantry support for a Sherman platoon. At least we ain't walking, I'm betting that there aren't many Krauts still breathing on the other side of that highway. The flyboys really worked that place over. We're going in behind the 9th Infantry, those guys have fought in North Africa and Sicily, they know their business. Our job will be to dash on through the hole they and the flyboys punch in the Kraut lines, then we're off to Coutances and points south. Now go, eat, make sure your gear is up to snuff and get some sleep, no horse play tonight. Go!"

Operation Cobra Plan, the 1st Inf Div is circled in red.
National Archives

Hauptmann Willi Steinhoff of Panzer Lehr Regiment 130, came to to find he was lying in the middle of the road. His black panzer uniform was scorched and he was bleeding from a wound on his right forearm, his jacket and shirt had been torn open by whatever had ripped his arm as well. He had a tremendous headache, his ears were ringing, and, for a moment, he had no idea where he was.

As he started to recover his senses, he looked around, there, in a ditch, burning, was his tank, a Panther, turret number 201. He commanded the 2nd company of the 1st Battalion in the regiment, a Panther company. He had gone into battle with ten Panthers. He remembered seeing four of them destroyed in the bombing of the previous day. Today, his own tank had been hit. He guessed that when the ammunition had cooked off, he'd been thrown clear. He had to wonder about his crew.

From the smell, it was obvious to him that some of his lads had not made it out of the vehicle.

He tried to stand and sat back down in the road, hard.

"Hhmm, seems my left leg is broken. Perhaps the right as well."

He laid back down on the road, not caring if he lived or died.

His hearing was returning, turning his head, he saw a Sherman coming down the road, right at him. Weakly he raised his arms into the air. Maybe they'd see him, maybe they wouldn't.

He really didn't care...

National Archives

"What d'ya think Skip, run that Kraut over or take him prisoner?"

Sgt Bob Haskell saw the German in the road with his hands in the air. One arm was covered in blood, tunic shredded. Fancy uniform, might be a Kraut officer.

"Hold up Jonesy, let's capture the guy."

The Sherman stopped and Haskell's loader got up in his hatch to cover his commander with his grease gun¹. Haskell had one as well and had it pointed at the Kraut as he approached him.

The German seemed to be in a lot of pain, which Haskell didn't really care about. Then he saw the skulls on the collars of the guy's uniform. An SS bastard, maybe I shoulda run him over!

"What's the hold up Sergeant? Why are we stopped?" Haskell's lieutenant, who had been in the second tank in the column, had come up to see what Haskell was doing.

"Looks like we caught one of them SS goons, should I just kill him now? Or let the MPs² do it?"

The lieutenant took a closer look, then shook his head. "He's not SS Sarge, he's a tank officer, they wear skulls too, but they look different. Also, no rank patch on his collar, the SS wear rank on their collars." Reaching into his pocket, the lieutenant pulled out a small metal insignia...

Showing it to Haskell, "See, no lower jaw on this Kraut's skull insignia."

"Okay, yeah, I see the difference, besides this guy has got a 'Gott mit uns' belt buckle, SS don't have that, do they lieutenant?"

"No, they don't sergeant. Looks like our Kraut tanker passed out..." Shouting down the road, the lieutenant got a medic from their infantry supports to take care of the Kraut.

"Get him off the road, Haskell, let's move out."

"Gotcha Sir!"

As the medic tended to the German officer, the tanks and infantry rolled on. There were more Germans ahead, the war wasn't over just yet.

¹ Grease gun, Army slang for the .45 caliber M3 submachine gun.
² MP = Military Police


  1. "For you the war is over" way or another. Can remember watching Combat! as a kid back in the 60s, that four or five year trek through France. Reading this brings back memories of that show Sarge.

    1. Loved that show growing up. "Checkmate King Two, this is White Rook..."

    2. Now that's a show I wouldn't mind seeing on re-re-re-runs.

  2. According to the "what is a dollar worth" inflation calculator on the Fed Bank Minneapolis web site, $4 in 1944 would be worth $58.15 in today's yang money (Richard Pryor).

    Waking up in the middle of the road with broken legs. That feels like an important concept to think about. Fantastic stuff as always Sarge!

    1. $4, a princely sum in those days! Still bought a lot of good stuff at the corner store back in the late '60s as well.

      Thanks Shaun!

  3. The only visible difference in the howitzer pictured and the one I took to REFORGER in 1983 is the tires. At the time we were the only U.S. towed artillery in Europe. Upon our return to CONUS we turned in the M 114 A-1 ("Pig Iron" to the USMC) for M 198 which has been surerceded by a newer generation. My gun was manufactured in 1955 and our prime mover was a 5-ton 6x6 manufactured in 1956 and re-built by the Sea-Bees in Port Hueme (SP?) in 1968. Old Guns

    1. My dad was a cannon-cocker for the Louisiana National Guard before and during college. He loved the 8" howitzer. How he and the unit never got sent to Korea, he didn't know.

      Then again, he worked at a metal fabricating shop after college until the Air Force finally opened up a slot for him. Thus missing all the shooting of the Korean War (active portion.)

    2. He was lucky to have missed Korea!

  4. Damn. You have a gift for writing. If you ever put all you wrote together in a book, I would be one of the first in line to buy it. Love your style. Excellent reading. Look forward to your blog everyday!

    1. Thanks Coffee Man, what you're reading will be turned into a book eventually. I need to fill in bits between these vignettes but that's the plan. I kept putting off writing a book but then realized it would not happen, as I write for the blog everyday, I combined the two efforts. So far, so good.

      Thanks for the encouragement!

  5. Spelling’s close enough for government work.

    1. Not like we're going to confuse that with something else.

  6. I have been to fires where people didn't get out. I don't Like that memory.

    1. Mixed with burning other things, it is not a good smell at all. Even worse when it's all wet and smoldery. Bleh.

  7. Good on you to explain to us readers the difference between the various skulls. One would get you shot, one might get you shot. There was a big difference.

    Heh. The regimental band. Guess it was during one of those periodic moments when Repple Depple was almost empty and there were 10 assignments open per each available private. Also happened in the Bulge. One band got sent in as a unit. Not many came out.

    There is method to the Marines' "Everyone is a Rifleman." The Army should periodically reacquaint itself with that comment.

    1. All the services should make their members familiar with basic infantry weapons. Even the Air Force made you qualify on the M-16 if you were going to certain areas of the planet.

    2. All services should make their members keep familiar with basic infantry weapons. Don't care what you do, if you are in the military, you should be able to shoot the M-16/M-4 family. And the basic pistol. And throw a grenade. And aptitude for crew-served weapons should be encouraged.

      Too many times during the GWOT rear-echelon troops of all services got jumped by bad guys, and too many of said troops had no idea what to do. Seriously, like in that movie "The 15:17 to Paris," too many rear-ech troops are taught to hunker down and run away at the sign of trouble. Running away just gets you shot in the back or a bayonet to the rear.

    3. If you run you'll just die tired.

    4. They runs they get the blade.

    5. Did a couple years of special assignment in the South Pacific region. By the time I came back to the FMF, they had phased out my MOS (Antitank Assault), so I got to float around, getting some time with various crew served weapons, logistics and support, and communications. Seems to me like that should be more what Basic is about, rather than all that close order drill BS. Value there not just in the direct experience, but also gaining a better understanding of what roles different elements play in the Big Picture. Also a good way to find out what everybody has an aptitude for.
      The best time I had was when I slipped through the cracks and didn't get assigned anywhere. Loose canon! I most loved to sneak and scout the outer perimeters, keeping an eye outward, as well as inward, just seeing what was going on everywhere. After awhile, maybe the XO would send somebody looking for me. I could always tell by their behavior whether it was something important, or just some busy BS, in which case, I'd play cat and mouse 'til I was ready to show up where the XO happened to be at the time. CO never summoned me. I kinda think he liked having me out there, watching everything, and everyone. There's no way he didn't know what I was doing. He seemed like he had grown up close to the earth too, and always seemed to know what was going on in his sphere of influence.

  8. Nit to pick- The M1903 Springfields for grenade launching were standard infantry rifles in every way, with the "Launcher, Grenade, M1" which would clamp on the barrel, with part of the clamp to the rear of the front sight, holding it on the barrel when the grenade was fired. Otherwise, the launcher would accompany the rifle grenade on its merry way.

    The M1903A4 sniper rifles never had a front sight installed, and thus could not be used for grenade launching. Despite any Hollywood images to the contrary, the Army did not use M1903s with scopes other than the M1903A4. The Marines did have some M1903 rifles with Unertl 8x target scopes added, which retained their original front sights, but those rifles were all in the Pacific.

    So, stick with the scope or grenade launcher, but don't conflate them both into a single weapon. Probably easier to just delete the scope reference since you have added spare rifle grenades to the story.
    Despite this tiny nit, another great installment, as always.

    I just finished CAPT (USN) Daniel Ellsberg's "The Far Shore" focused on the Mulberry artificial harbor aspect of Normandy, and the vital contribution it made to the logistical support for the invasion, especially in getting artillery, tanks, vehicles and huge quantities of ammunition ashore. His book ends with Operation Cobra. Very enlightening.
    John Blackshoe

    1. Ah ha, good eye for detail. I'm going to work that into the story, somehow, rather than just delete it.

      The Mulberries really helped make the landings successful.

  9. I didn't know that about the skull insignia. Mt Mercedes shop owner friend's father was drafted into the SS at a young age towards the end of the war. Forget whether it was the Russians or us but the only think that saved him from being shot is that they had no time to tattoo his number - and that was a dead giveaway for SS.

    They deserved to be just shot..

    1. He must have been Volksdeutsch - of German descent but not a citizen of the Reich. That's the only way one could be drafted into the Waffen SS. Otherwise all draft eligible males went into the Wehrmacht - the regular German Armed Forces.

      Although the SS were declared a criminal organization, not all SS men were criminals deserving of summary execution. Many regular German army types were also guilty of war crimes, especially in the East.

      The SS tattoo was their blood group (A, AB, etc), wasn't a number, and it was on the inside of the left bicep.


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