Tuesday, July 7, 2020

The 7th of July, 1944 - D + 31, A Long Way from Home

U.S.Army Signal Corps Photo

It was yet another French village nestled between fields and hedgerows. No more than a few houses around a crossroads. The division was still pushing south, rumor had it that the 2nd and 29th Infantry Divisions were right outside Saint-Lô and that town would be in American hands "any day now." Sgt Bill Brandt shook his head, might be true, might be more Army bullshit, you never know. Sgt Brandt pondered that for a moment, before Normandy the strongest cuss words he ever used were "gosh darn it," now all sorts of foul things came out of his mouth.

He and his squad were sitting beside a dirt road on the outside of the little village. They were taking a breather while they waited for their platoon sergeant. They were down to nine guys, they were lucky though as they'd only had two guys wounded since entering what the French called Le Bocage, the hedgerows which clogged and channeled all movement through this section of Normandy.

"Hey Jack, you got anything left in the squad canteen?" Brandt asked his assistant squad leader, and good pal, Corporal Jack Wilson.

A few weeks back, one of the guys, Pvt Andre Tremblay - everybody called him Cajun - had managed to "requisition" some of the local brandy from a French farmer. Since then, Sgt Brandt had managed to acquire a couple of extra canteens which it was Cajun's job to keep filled with applejack, or Calvados as the locals called it. The rest of the squad took it in turns to carry those extra canteens. It was just the thing for after a long patrol or one of the many bitter little firefights which marked their day to day existence.

Brandt's boys had been out of the line for a few days for a well-deserved rest, now it was "back to work" as Cat (Pvt Melvin Katz) liked to say. Cat was a Jewish kid from Connecticut, via Austria. He hated Nazis but didn't hate Germans. Cat was, after all, Austrian originally. He was handy with a rifle, spoke German, and was pretty good with a needle and thread.

"Hey Sarge, here comes SSG Andersen!"

Their platoon sergeant was making his way through the other guys heading down the road, a mix of their own 1st Division guys with a few 2nd Armored guys mixed in, seems they were going to have their own tank support!

"Brandt, Wilson, you guys gather 'round." SSG Andersen was pretty low key, he spoke with a quiet authority which the men naturally responded to.

"Okay, you might have noticed the armored guys moving up with us, the battalion is going to have a company of armored infantry and a platoon of Shermans as we move up on this place," he peered at the map for a moment, then pronounced the name of the town "Cowmont Leventy."

Cajun chimed in with what he considered the correct pronunciation, "Ko-mon Lay-von-tay."

Sgt Brandt looked at Andersen's map, Caumont-l'Éventé was the name of the little town, he found it on his own map and circled it.

"SSG Andersen, this Caumont place, any idea what's between us and it, Kraut-wise?"

"Battalion S2 thinks that the Germans are getting pretty thin on the ground lately. Still seeing Kraut paratroopers but also some regular Kraut infantry. Might be an assault gun or two, we don't know. That's why 2nd Armored loaned us some guys."

"Wonderful. When do we move out?"

"Fourteen hundred hours. No artillery prep, but you'll have mortars on call. Your radio still working?"

Brandt looked at Spaz (Pvt Alfred Esposito), who lugged the SCR-300 backpack radio for the squad, something they'd just been issued a few days ago.

"She's good to go Sarge." Esposito said.

"Good, be ready to go at fourteen hundred." With that SSG Andersen left the men to prepare.

Bundesarchiv

"You see here, you pull the sight up, align the target, the sight, and the top of the warhead. Then squeeze this lever. After it fires get your head down!"

The Feldwebel was instructing his men on how to use the Panzerfaust (literally "armored fist") which was a single shot, disposable, short range anti-tank weapon. Very effective but you had to be close to use it. Feldwebel Jahnsen knew a few guys who had been killed or severely injured after successfully engaging an enemy tank with the damned things. Too close they'd been hit by fragments of the tank they'd just killed!

"Feldwebel, how close do you have to be?" Flieger Tholen asked. He was terrified at the prospect of facing Allied tanks, back in May he'd been a mechanic on Focke Wulfs, now he was, on paper, a paratrooper.

"Book says 60 meters, but you'll never hit anything from that far away. Best to get in close, say 30 meters. Clear?"

"Ja, klar." But to Tholen it was anything but clear.

"So, the Amis are pushing us hard, the lieutenant says they will have tank support today. We could hear them moving up and seeing a lot of dust out towards the north. So stay in cover, shoot when you have a target then change positions. We have to keep moving or we don't stand a chance!"


The squad had stepped off a little late as they had to wait for a squad from 2nd Armored. But those guys showed up with a tank, which made Brandt's guys feel a lot better. It felt good to make the Krauts worry for a change.

As they had advanced, Wilson's team to the left of the tank, a half squad from 2nd Armored on the right, with everyone else clustered behind the armored beast. Brandt had wanted to be out on the flank but Wilson had told him, "Our turn, you take too many risks Bill, what are ya trying for, a medal?"

Brandt chuckled at the thought and walked right into the back of the tank as it came to an abrupt stop. Damn but I am tired, Brandt thought, good thing the tankers hadn't decided to back up.

"Sarge, you okay? Your lip's bleeding." Pvt Fred Thomas, aka "Red," had a look of concern on his face. If they lost the Sarge, he didn't know what they'd do. Guy had been keeping them all alive for weeks now.

"Shit," Bill cursed as he touched a finger to his lower lip, it came away bloody. Again, the cursing bothered him. What would his mother say?

Just then there was a loud "bang" to their right front and something hissed over the top of the Sherman.

"Kraut Panzerfaust!" one of the armored guys yelled as he opened fire with his Garand. A little lower and they'd have lost their tank.


"Scheisse!" Tholen muttered as he threw the empty tube away and scrambled to get into cover. But he was too late, two rounds from an American rifle hit him high up on his left arm and torso spinning him around and dropping him on his face in the tangled brush of the hedgerow. Tholen was trembling, it felt like he'd been kicked by one of his grandfather's mules.

He couldn't feel his left arm at all. Looking around for his rifle, he saw it was out in front of him. Try as he might, he could not command his left arm to move at all to grab it. As the shock began to wear off, he realized that he was in a great deal of pain.

Feldwebel Jahnsen had seen Tholen go down, but he was too busy returning fire at the Americans next to the tank in the road. He had to move or he'd join Tholen on the ground.


Cpl Wilson and his team had gone to cover as soon as the Armored guys had begun to return fire. Sgt Brandt could see nothing to shoot at, so he had his guys wriggle through the hedgerow, which wasn't very thick at this spot, to get to Wilson and maybe start trying to flank the Krauts to their front. As Brandt's team moved, Wilson heard at least three rounds snap over his head, one made a low moan as it passed within inches of his head. He went to ground.

Pvt Woodrow Simpson, aka "Duck," saw muzzle flashes from the brush just ahead. So he opened up on the flashes, not stopping until he heard the clip spring from his rifle. Taking cover he reloaded. Things were quiet though. All firing had stopped. But he wasn't going to poke his head up until someone told him to. He had not only learned to duck in his few weeks in combat, he'd also learned to keep his fool head down!


"Fall back boys, fall back." Jahnsen ordered his men. They'd only had the one Panzerfaust, and Tholen had fired too soon, had jerked the lever which activated the propellant, and as a result did nothing more than alert the Amis to their presence. Well, he'd gotten himself shot as well. Damn it!


Tholen was trembling, he couldn't move his left arm, his entire left side felt as if it was on fire, and he had no idea where his comrades were. Would they just leave him? He heard movement in the brush nearby, was it one of his guys?

No, an American!


The American private from the 2nd Armored Division came through the brush and saw a Kraut on the ground, staring at him. He was just a kid and he looked hurt bad. Then the kid reached awkwardly for the rifle lying nearby.

"Not so fast Kraut!" Pvt Cumberland stepped on the Kraut's hand and pushed the muzzle of his Garand into the kid's side. The Kraut stopped moving.


Tholen was terrified, the big American had stepped on his hand, he was sure it was broken, and then had poked him hard in the side. He feared for his life.


Cumberland kept his weapon on the Kraut and called for his sergeant.

"What the Hell is this Cumberland? Catch yourself a Kraut did you?"

"Yeah, but he's hurt pretty bad."

"F**k him. Smash his rifle, we gotta move."

Cumberland picked up the German rifle and smacked a nearby tree with it, shattering the stock. Then he heaved it off into the brush.

They left Tholen behind as they moved out.

Near Caumont--l'Éventé
(Source)

A mile further on, the road bent to the left. An open field was on the squad's left which was where Brandt positioned his men. As he tried to make out what was around the bend in the road, he heard the "bang" and hiss of a Panzerfaust. This one didn't miss.

The round had impacted just in front of the driver and quickly burned through the front armor of the Sherman. The driver didn't stand a chance. Nor did the loader behind him as the burning jet of the shaped charge hit him as well. The bow machine gunner tried to make it out but he had been badly wounded in the legs by spalling from the warhead's penetration. He collapsed back into his seat with a low groan.

The tank commander and gunner both got out of their hatches but were immediately hit by German small arms fire. The gunner lived, the commander did not.

As the Sherman began to burn, Brandt yelled, "Esposito, to me!"

Spaz crawled over and Brandt got on the radio.

"Concentration Juliet, I'll correct!" Brandt yelled into the radio hand piece.

"Shot out!" Came back over the radio.

Moments later a whistling sound passed overhead and a mortar round thumped into the tree line where the Panzerfaust shot had come from.

"Fire for effect!" Brandt shouted into the handset.

The squad watched as nine more rounds thumped into the tree line. Hard to tell if they were having any effect, but they were landing where he wanted them.

"Rounds complete!" Came over the radio.

Brandt waited, nothing was coming from the tree line. "Copy, rounds complete."

U.S.Army Signal Corps Photo

Feldwebel Jahnsen was dying. He knew it, he'd seen wounds like his before. In the East and in Italy. Somehow he thought it would hurt more.

He had managed to get another Panzerfaust and this one he had used himself. He timed it perfectly and had seen the bright spot on the tank's glacis as the shaped charge detonated and burned quickly through the armor. He had pitched the tube one way, then ducked the other.

As he tried to make his way back to the next tree line, the single mortar round detonating nearby made him dive for cover once more. It was one of the succeeding rounds which had mortally wounded him and had killed at least three more of his men.

As he waited for death, he thought of Germany. His parents were both dead, killed in an English bombing raid. His two brothers were also dead, one in North Africa, the other in Russia. Only his sister still lived, at least he thought she was alive. She and her husband lived in the Harz Mountains, far from any targets which might interest the enemy. Her husband had lost a leg in Russia, which was why he was alive and at home with his wife.

A bird was singing nearby, he had no idea what sort of bird it was, he couldn't see it. But it's song was so pleasant. Jahnsen wanted to live, but he knew his time was up. There was so much more he wanted to do. But the war...

"The damned war..." he whispered with his last breath.

Bundesarchiv

Tholen was lucky. The Germans had counterattacked the shallow penetration made by the Americans and had recaptured the ground marked by the burnt out Sherman. Troopers from another company had found him, barely conscious, and one of their medics had patched him up.

"Your war is over Junge," the medic told him, "you're lucky to be alive."

Tholen didn't feel lucky. At the field hospital they had amputated his arm, it had been mangled past any hope of repairing it. His chest was heavily bandaged as was his sole remaining hand, which had four broken fingers, a dislocated thumb and a badly sprained wrist from the American stomping on his hand.

From what one of the few men left in his platoon had told him, he was the only man left alive from his squad.

Lucky? Perhaps.

Tholen contemplated his future as a one-armed farmer. He didn't think he had much of a future.


Sgt Bill Brandt took another long drink from one the squad canteens. The Calvados burned going down, but it numbed the pain. His lip was swollen to twice its normal size but that's not the pain he was feeling.

The tank crew had all died, save one. Four of the armored infantrymen died on that road as well. Again his squad was lucky, one fat lip but everyone was alive.

Bill wasn't sure how long that could last. He had a bad feeling.

As he handed the canteen to Cat, he said, "Another day, another dollar, right Cat?"

Cat took a long drink, then looked at his sergeant, "Yup, another buck. F**k the Krauts and f**ck the Army. I wanna go home."

"You and me both brother, you and me both." Brandt loved these guys. Too much probably.

The thought of losing any of them terrified him.




10 comments:

  1. Rolling along Sarge......:)

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    1. Getting closer to the breakout, then things will really be rolling!

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  2. That type of fighting, where you can't really see what's going on, you can't really see any difference from one field to the next, the only thing that stands out are destroyed vehicles, and after a while one destroyed vehicle looks like another, wears on a man. Especially when it becomes 'gain some, lose some, gain the same ground, lose the same ground, repeat, repeat.'

    You capture the drudgery and soul-weary feeling of that type of combat very well.

    Blue still holding up?

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    1. She's in the shop for installation of accessories which she was supposed to be delivered with. There's always "that guy" who says "I got this" but doesn't read the entire wish list. But it's all good, I'm loving the vehicle.

      The fighting in the hedgerows was indeed frustrating, for both sides.

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    2. If the Germans had managed to keep us contained in the Bocage, even for just a few months longer, it would have significantly impacted the war. Then again, that might have delayed us getting to Germany first, and the Soviets would not have stopped where they promised they would, so, overall, the Germans should be glad we finally broke out when we did.

      As to "That Guy," well, classic case of 'Car Salesman.' At least you have The Missus' vehicle while Blue is down.

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    3. Actually they gave me a late model Accord as a loaner. Nice car, just too small.

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  3. Panzerfausts accounted for most of over 1000 tanks Soviets lost in the Berlin battle.
    Nasty little weapons, if short ranged ones. But perfect in the street fighting... or bocages.

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    1. By April/May of 1945 that's about all the Germans had left for anti-tank weapons. Lots of old men and boys to wield them as well!

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  4. Good gritty stuff Sarge. It ain't like the movies.

    Shaped charges are pretty slick, quite interesting really. Nasty things out in the field though.

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    Replies
    1. You don't want to be on the business end of a shaped charge, that's for sure!

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