Thursday, July 9, 2020

The 9th of July, 1944 - D + 33, To Saint-Lô

U.S. Army Signal Corps Photo

The squad was on the move, their parent battalion was shifting to the west to take part in trying to seize the French city of Saint-Lô. The L.T. said that if they could punch through there, then the tanks could swing wide of that place and eventually break through into open country. Sgt Brandt didn't really care one way or the other. He and his men were exhausted.

He had to admit though, Kraut resistance seemed to be slackening. The paratroopers they'd been fighting for weeks seemed to melt away as soon as any significant fire was placed on them. Small arms, mortars, both seemed to do the trick. It seems like the Krauts knew that they were on the verge of having their flank turned. After all, it was still a long way to Germany and the Krauts had very little transport, so they'd have to walk. Get Allied armor in behind them and it would be a slaughter.

"Sarn't Brandt, why the Hell are we walking? We're eating dust from every asshole with a jeep. I thought we had plenty of trucks." Corporal Jack Wilson seemed to be losing his edge. He was awfully irritable lately and bitched more than the privates in the squad. Sgt Brandt was worried about him, Hell, if he mouthed off to the wrong guy he could be in serious trouble.

"They're making us walk because we're infantry, Jack. It's what we do, we walk."

Wilson shook his head and lit another cigarette. He really was getting antsy these days. Bill was right, he needed to calm down.

Bundesarchiv

Oberleutnant Gerd Vogel was reluctant to tell his men that they were going to fight a delaying action. He'd been briefed to set up an ambush and start killing Amis until he ran out of bullets. "Not one step back," the major had ordered.

"Willi, I need you to set up over in those trees, get up high as you can and still be concealed. Shoot the first man that looks like an officer. Radiomen are good too. Kill the officers and the Amis will get disorganized, kill the radiomen and they can't call in artillery."

"Jawohl Herr Oberleutnant, what do I do after..."

"There is no after Willi. We stand here, if need be, we die here. Klar?"

Gefreiter Willi Schultz didn't look happy. He understood, but he didn't like it. He was starting to question what they were fighting for, he could understand fighting Communists, but the Americans? What did they ever do to him?


Cpl Wilson stepped on a rock, a silly thing really, but his ankle folded on him, he collapsed at the side of the road with a loud, "Ah shit!" Flat on his butt, the ankle really started to hurt. He didn't know if it was sprained or broken, he'd heard a "pop" just as he'd stepped on that rock.

Sgt Brandt called down the column for a medic. T/4 Harry Milbury, who was back with the company command group, not far away, heard Brandt shout for a medic. He hustled up to Wilson who was rocking back and forth, teeth clenched, trying not to shout out from the pain throbbing in his ankle.

"What didja do Jack, step wrong?" Milbury was kneeling down by Wilson's ankle, he had two choices, lace up Wilson's boot as tight as he could stand it and see if he could put weight on that foot, or take the boot off and examine the ankle to see if it was a sprain or a break. He decided to get the boot off.

Wilson grimaced and moaned as the medic got his boot off, it hurt like Hell.


Schultz had found a good position, not up in the tree the Oberleutnant had suggested, which would have gotten him killed after one shot, but on top of a brush covered embankment. He could see a long stretch of the road, perhaps fifty meters of it, and the embankment gave him decent cover.

As he watched the road, an Ami light tank went up the road, trailing a plume of dust, then another. Soon enough a group of infantry came into view, spaced evenly along the roadway, not bunched up. Schultz thought that they looked like good soldiers, just from the way they carried themselves. They were scruffy looking as well, real "Frontschwein¹" as his military referred to them.

Suddenly one of the Americans went down hard. Schultz listened for a shot, nothing. He wondered why the man had gone down so hard. He had his sights on the fellow, an American Sanitäter, he thought that they called them "medics," came into view and knelt down to treat the downed soldier. After a moment Schultz grinned to himself, the guy had twisted his ankle.

He knew that kind of pain having twisted his ankle on the jump into Crete back in 1940. It was probably why he was still alive, most of his platoon had been killed or wounded. Vogel had spent the entire battle in an aid station. The Tommies had fought hard, there had been no more combat jumps for anyone since then. 


"Alright Jack, I think you're good, it doesn't seem to be broken, but you need to go back to the battalion aid station to get it checked and wrapped. There's nothing I can do for you here..."

As Wilson grimaced, still in a lot of pain, he saw the L.T. and their platoon sergeant, SSG Andersen, coming down the road towards them. At the same moment his buddy, and squad leader, Bill Brandt came over and knelt next to him.

"Ollie, flag down the next jeep that comes down the road, we need to get Jack to the aide station."

"You got it Sarge," Ollie (Pvt Theodore Olson) said as he moved down the road a ways to try and flag down a vehicle.

"Smoke Jack?" Brandt said, offering his pack of Camels. Another bad habit he'd picked up from combat. Swearing, drinking, smoking, what was next? Loose women? Good thing the locals were fairly scattered and tried to stay away from the soldiers, no matter what uniform they wore.

"Sure, thanks Bill."

Brandt lit the cigarette, then putting the pack away, said to Wilson, "Take it easy for a few days Jack. Even if that thing is broken, I doubt they'd send you back to England, but you will get a few days off your feet and out of the line, you need it brother."

Cpl Wilson sighed as he took a drag from the cigarette, "Yeah, you're right, I've been awfully crabby lately. I could use a couple nights' good sleep."

Before he could continue, SSG Andersen and 2Lt Heintzelman were on the scene, "What the Hell are you jokers doing, taking a smoke break? Dontcha know there's a war on?" SSG Andersen loved to play the hard ass.

Bundesarchiv

Vogel figured the range to be about a hundred meters, he was firing over open sights, he was not a trained sniper but he was one of the best marksmen in the battalion. He saw two men on the ground, one smoking, the other looking up at two men who had just come into Vogel's view.

There, a stripe on the back of the helmet, no, both standing men had single vertical stripes on the backs of their helmets. From this distance he couldn't tell if either one was an officer, but both were worthwhile targets. Then one of the kneeling men stood up, he too had a stripe on his helmet. A junior sergeant perhaps?

Another man walked into view, he had a backpack, no, it was a radio, he could just make out the folded antenna. Then he saw the man hand what had to be a handset to one of the three men standing who had stripes on their helmets.

That had to be the senior of the two men.

He let out his breath slowly, then squeezed the trigger.

As always, the report startled him. "Time to move," he muttered to himself.





¹ Literally "front pig," German military slang for a front line soldier, what we might call a "grunt."

Editor's Note: No, Cpl Wilson didn't change his first name, I screwed up, alert reader Mike the EE spotted that. Fixed it, thanks to Mike!

22 comments:

  1. Oh man......cliffhanger today.....ta dum!

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  2. Read a story about a unit that had 4 or 5 LT's shot out from under it in a short time. The unit morale was dark. The next LT they were issued, was quite different. He dug his own hole, he cared for his men, and generally behaved himself as he should. That unit had a reputation for not being able to do much, but they managed to do some really good work over the next week or so with the LT leading the way. The captain came by and asked the LT what had changed... He said, "Well Cap'n, have you ever tried to push a string?" Being out front....

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    1. My Boy Scout Patrol Leaders' Handboook that I was given when I was 13 had a discussion about leadership. I don't remember a thing about what it said. But I do remember the illustration. One half was of a Patrol Leader with a crown on his head sitting in a throne being pulled by a bunch of Scouts with disgruntled looks on their faces. The other half was of a Patrol Leader out in front of a group of Scouts leading the way with much happier Scouts behind him. It's an old story.

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    2. Excellent example of leadership!

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  3. I got a bit flummoxed by Wilson's name change - not a problem for Jack to become Dave, but it threw me and had me questioning my recollection of the story (which is great)!

    Some personal tidbit for potential future use - dad was born in 38 in Gronigen, Netherlands, he remembered seeing the Canadians liberate the city through the mail slot. He said that when the TX NG Graves Registration (first blacks he'd ever seen) came through to deal with the German bodies, every body was barefoot, because the locals had taken their boots (in better state of repair than their own after six years of occupation). He also recalled that two of his aunts had walked 50 km pushing a pram to visit his father and the family store to get additional food, then had to bribe their way home. Even in a small country like the Netherlands, availability of food was spotty during the occupation. Another was that his dad had a goat to get some milk to sell, once, when the goat peed in the bucket, he sold it to the local collaborator (she named her son Benito Adolf, hard to hide that) - apparently she said "it was a bit strong" and didn't buy more milk.

    Mike the EE

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    1. D'oh! My bad, I fixed Cpl Wilson's name. This is what happens when you get old, you forget names. (And I actually write all this stuff down so I don't forget!) Thanks Mike.

      I've heard that starvation was a very real possibility during the war, and immediately afterwards.

      Great story! (Now if only I can remember it! 🙄)

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    2. One of first missions after Germans capitulated, was to airdrop food to isolated Dutch villages and towns (Germans flooded much of the countryside).
      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operations_Manna_and_Chowhound
      In the East it was even worse, Germans bascially robbed their way thru Polish, Byelorussian and Ukrainian villages down to the barebones sustenance and lower. And Ghettos were systematically starved out, even before final solution started in the full. Soviet troops executing burned ground startegy didnt help either. And Leningrad siege was perhaps peak of use of hunger as weapon...

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    3. Starvation has always been a weapon of war.

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    4. (Don McCollor)...I believe even before the Germans in Holland surrendered, they gave permission for Manna/Chow Hound (British/American) air drops for the Dutch civilians (food, clothing, blankets). (In an account), normally the squadron "waker-upper" went round to wake bomber crews scheduled a mission. This time, he found only empty bunks. The crews were already up, had been through the chow line, and were crowding the briefing room, even the ones not scheduled to fly. They wanted to fly this mission bad...

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    5. I read that somewhere as well.

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  4. I've met some actual WWII German soldiers, and to the man they all understood fighting the Soviets. And understood stomping on the French. But all said when we got involved, it took the wind out of their sails. They kept going, but the understanding was, "Fight, Fight hard, but you CAN surrender to the Amis." With the understanding that surrendering to the Brits or Free French was... potentially problematical. And you didn't, if possible, even contemplate surrendering to the Russians.

    Darned, looks like we're going to lose either a SSGT (the most valuable target,) an RTO (the second most valuable, especially if the radio gets hit) or an officer to a sniper. Not fun. Could break a unit, or cause a unit to go beserk, and beserk units are hard to control units.

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  5. Whoa, a real cliffhamger here...
    I have grown fond of the people you write about, and even the lt was decent enough to hear advice of NCOs
    any of them will be serious loss...

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    1. I am still up in the air as to what happens next. I too have grown fond of these characters, but war doesn't play favorites.

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  6. Nothing particular to add, but just wanted to say that I'm really enjoying the (almost) daily stories. Great work Sarge.

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    1. Perhaps Andersen picked up an officer's helmet because his was lost/damaged/stolen?

      Typically yes, but not in all units and not all units used them in white (some tried less conspicuous colors). The practice was eventually abandoned as the stripes tended to make those guys targets. Besides which, if you didn't know who your officers and sergeants were, you were a pretty bad soldier. Even the newbies figured it out pretty quickly. "Hhmm, that guy is yelling at me so he must be in charge."

      Good eye, I went with all vertical stripes to build the suspense. (I mean if the officer's stripe is vertical, you know that Heintzelman is going down. Gotta keep you guessing, don't I?)

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    2. (Don McCollor)...(Noting that the stripe was on the back of the helmet, so the men could follow the one leading them)...I think they were called 'German aiming stakes'.

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