Friday, August 21, 2020

The River

Imperial War Museum - modified

"That's a road?" Obergefreiter Voigt asked incredulously. "Reminds me of Russia, but it's actually on your map?"

"We've occupied the country for four years, I would hope we would have mapped it fairly thoroughly by now."

Leutnant von Lüttwitz went back to studying the map using the red lens on his issue pocket lamp¹, the area was crisscrossed with these farm tracks. He realized that they could avoid the larger roads almost entirely by following these tracks. It would be a rough ride but with a vehicle, fully fueled he had noted, they were within a 15 minute drive from the Seine. As they were behind enemy lines, in a captured truck, with the enemy now actively looking for them, it would take longer to get to the river. But they had a fighting chance now, far better odds than when they had been on foot.

Farm track to Villegats

Feldwebel Pohl had suggested that both Voigt and the lieutenant shed their tunics as well as their helmets. In the dark a soldier in shirtsleeves and braces looked much the same in any army. While von Lüttwitz spoke fairly good English, Voigt spoke not a word, nor did any of the other men. Then Grenadier Hans Pfeiffer had had an idea...

"If we get stopped, tell the Tommies that you're Polish and that Voigt doesn't speak English. Unless the men who stop us speak Polish or German, your accent shouldn't give you away."

"What if I need to tell Voigt something? I can't do that in German, if we get stopped I doubt that the Tommies have men that are stupid enough not to recognize German." The lieutenant saw that as the only flaw in Pfeiffer's idea.

At that moment Grenadier Sauer spoke up, "Govorit' po russki."

Everyone turned to look at Sauer, then the lieutenant spoke, "Brilliant. We all speak enough Russian to get by. That might work., if we get stopped, which I'm hoping we won't."

With that the men piled back into the truck and Voigt put it in gear and headed over the fields to Villegats. He actually had hope that he might see his wife and two children again.

The church of Saint-Taurin in Hécourt

Sgt Wallace wasn't all that surprised that nobody in his ad hoc party spoke any French. He also wasn't surprised that no one in the village of
Hécourt spoke English. He had hoped that maybe the priest did, but he was away. He had tried to explain that he needed a telephone and was there one in the rectory. It took some time before the man he was speaking with, or attempting to speak with more properly, understood what Wallace wanted.

"Ah, un téléphone. Pas ici, peut-être à Pacy-sur-Eure?²" The man said this with a classic Gallic shrug of his shoulders, as if to say that it was beyond his powers to produce such a thing.

Sgt Wallace pulled his map out, when the man saw the name of the largest nearby village, Pacy-sur-Eure, he pointed at the map and said "yes" in French a number of times. The man was excited, whether it was from successfully communicating the lack of a telephone in Hécourt or in convincing these Englishmen that he couldn't help them and fobbing them off onto the larger town, Wallace couldn't be sure. For the moment he realized that all they could do was make the three mile hike to Pacy-sur-Eure and find a telephone. Better yet would be to flag down a passing vehicle and returning to the depot outside of Évreux and reporting the loss of their truck and four men.

Sgt Wallace was not looking forward to that. Especially as it was now dark, do they press on, or wait here until morning? The men were exhausted, he wasn't sure if he could push them to walk three miles in the dark, no doubt with thoughts of marauding SS men in the vicinity.

"All right lads, we're staying here tonight, we'll push on tomorrow. I want you," he said pointing at one of the men, whose name he did not know, which was true for most of them, "to take the first sentry duty. Post yourself outside next to the road. Perhaps we can build a small fire as well. Flag down the first vehicle you see and we'll see what happens next. After which, you, you, and you," again pointing to different soldiers, "will take one hour shifts each, then wake me up."

Much as he hated to end the chase here, Sgt Wallace really had no choice, he did not want to be wandering the countryside in the dark.


Voigt drove carefully down the track, many of the fields had yet to be harvested so the track stood out in the waning moonlight. Across the fields he noticed that villages were now better lit than they had been before the invasion. Life for these French villagers was slowly returning to normal.

They managed to avoid Villegats by sticking to the farm tracks. One wrong turn had forced them to pass through the town of Chaufour-lès-Bonnières. They had done so with no trouble at all. There were British soldiers in the town, but their minds were on other things than hunting Germans in the dark. Perhaps the word had not gotten this far yet.

The lieutenant was starting to think they might pull this off. Rather than strike for the small wooded valley leading down to the Seine, where there was no bridge, and hoping to find boats, von Lüttwitz decided to head for Vernon itself. There was at least one bridge there, probably in the Seine by now, but he was sure that the British had put in temporary bridges.

He was feeling lucky. "Obergefreiter, stick to the main road, we'll be passing through a very small village," peering at the map he found it, "of Blaru. From there we'll take a side road through a forest and enter Vernon. Hopefully we can then reconnoiter the river crossing and decide our next move from there."

"Jawohl Herr Leutnant. If we're going to stay on the main road, perhaps we should turn on the head lamps."

"Good idea, Günter. Do it."

Private Kenneth Sturgis thought he could hear a vehicle approaching from the south of the village. He stepped down the road, away from the fire, to see down the road better. There, there were a pair of dimmed head lamps. Had to be a lorry from the sounds of it.

As the vehicle got closer, it slowed as it entered the village. Sturgis could see that it was a Bedford, just like the one they'd lost. He stepped into the road and waved it down.

"What are you doing out here Private?" There was a captain next to the driver, he didn't look happy.

"Might I go get my sergeant sir? He can explain everything."

"Very well, quickly now!"

Moments later Sgt Wallace came out and explained the situation. The captain looked rather unhappy about the idea of armed Germans roaming about the rear areas of the British Army. In truth, there had been a lot of that recently. Lots of stragglers gave themselves up without much fuss. These sounded like combat soldiers trying to escape the collapse of the German Army in France.

"Sergeant, er, Wallace, wasn't it?"

"Yes sir, Wallace, 6th Battalion Royal Scots Fusiliers, temporarily detached to the rest camp near Évreux."

"Quite, how did you get tangled up in this?"

"They needed an NCO, sir. I was available."

"Bloody rear area fools. Keep your post here Sergeant Wallace, I'll send a lorry to collect you and take you all back to the rest camp. I'd take you with me now but the back is full of rations and equipment. You tried Sergeant, you tried. I'll take it from here."

"Yes sir, thank you sir!" Sgt Wallace snapped his best salute. He was relieved that the first vehicle to come by was from what he liked to call "the real Army." The truck had been marked with the wyvern of the 43rd Wessex Division, an excellent fighting division. That captain was no rear area sod.

"Perhaps I might keep my stripes after all." Wallace muttered.

"Sarge?" Private Sturgis swore he heard the sergeant say something.

"Nothing Private, just woolgathering."

Forest road to Vernon

The Germans in their stolen truck followed the curve of the road into the forest. It was extremely dark now as the clouds had moved in and covered the waning gibbous moon. The lieutenant thought how nice it would be if it would start to rain. Sentries tried to stay under cover in the rain and tended to be a lot less vigilant. Rain might help them to get across the Seine.

But just in case they ran into trouble, he had reloaded both magazines of his pistol. At least it might give them a head start against a too inquisitive sentry. He rather hoped it wouldn't come to that.

As the truck rolled into Vernon, the rain started to pour down. What few soldiers there were out on the streets were heading for cover, Leutnant Jürgen von Lüttwitz hadn't felt this lucky since the Soviet attack in the fall of 1942 to try and relieve Leningrad. His division had taken heavy casualties and he had nearly been killed himself on a number of occasions, but had escaped without a scratch.

They might just make it...

Bailey and Pontoon Bridges at Vernon, France

There were two bridges over the Seine, a Bailey Bridge and a pontoon bridge. There were small sentry shacks next to each bridge, on both sides of the river. Lance Corporal Michael Jenkins was manning the shack on the south side of the pontoon bridge. It was well after midnight, the rain was pouring down, and the temperature was falling. He was cold, tired, and absolutely miserable. It must have been near 0130 in the morning when he saw a Bedford lorry approaching.

The lorry stopped about twenty yards from his position. That seemed rather odd. He straightened up and watched the vehicle. He saw the driver get out and climb halfway onto the bonnet, he seemed to be doing something with the windscreen. Perhaps the wipers were not working. He watched the man intently. After a few minutes the man climbed back into the lorry and it began moving forward again.

He stepped out and flagged the vehicle down. He noticed that the windscreen was very muddy, perhaps they had been trying to get some of the mud off. The lorry slowed and the driver was lowering his window.

"Bit of trouble with the wipers then?" Jenkins was a friendly sort, didn't like to make trouble, didn't seek trouble. The two men in the cab were in shirtsleeves, no caps, he thought that odd but he was no officer, he didn't really care. The driver just looked at him, the passenger spoke.

"Good evening. Are we on the right path to Beauvais?"

The man spoke with an odd accent. Jenkins was a bit suspicious but he also knew that the Army had all sorts of nationalities in it these days, Czechs, Poles, and other assorted foreigners who didn't speak English all that well.

"Where are you from? You don't sound English?"

"Ah no, we are Polish. Is there a problem?"

Leutnant von Lüttwitz was somewhat nervous, his pistol was ready to fire, all he had to do was point and pull the trigger and this somewhat friendly Tommy would be dead. But he was reluctant to kill the man just yet. Perhaps they could brazen this out yet.

"Ah, explains the funny accent that does. Poles? Never met any Poles, are you lads lost?"

The passenger explained that they had taken a wrong turn several miles back and had run off the edge of their map. A common occurrence during the rapid advances of the past month, even Jenkins knew that.

"Aye mate, ye're on the right road to Beauvais. Just follow the signs to corps headquarters, it's clearly marked. Good luck mate!" With that Jenkins slapped the driver's side door, which earned him an odd look from the driver. The man seemed annoyed for some reason.

As the truck left the pontoon bridge, von Lüttwitz breathed a sigh of relief, they were across the Seine. He had no idea where the German lines might be now, but he felt invigorated by the ease with which they had crossed the river. Now it was time to press on and find some place to go to ground. He was not going to press his luck by traveling during the day. The closer they got to home, the more circumspect they would have to be.

Jenkins watched the lorry disappear across the river and into the night. He shook his head and wondered what the world was coming to, he had no idea how close to eternity he had just been.

"Bloody foreigners."

¹ The German word for their military issue flashlight was Taschenlampe, pocket lamp.
² "Ah, a telephone. Not here, perhaps in Pacy-sur-Eure?"


  1. Time to start breathing again........the ad hoc Brits might have escaped the chop eh?

  2. "No idea how close to eternity...." When we moved to Houston after college, I had a two tone 1978 Olds 88. Comfortable, but long in the tooth. As I was coming home from Stink-adena, there was a gaggle of police cars on the access road, and a live truck from Channel 2. There was an identical Delta 88 in the ditch with bullet holes all over the doors.....

    I was about 15 minutes late to being in the wrong car at the wrong place at the wrong time.... Welcome to Houston....

  3. They are over the river, but not out of the woods yet!

  4. I'm sure more of this sort of thing happened than most people think. Fog of war and all.

    1. I thought so too, so I used it as a plausible story line.

    2. Much like in the opening of "Kelly's Heroes." After the breakout, the Germans were using anything they could get their hands on. And also like in KH, as in real life, heavy rain tends to suck the fun out of being outside, and one tends more to pay attention as to not letting more water run down one's back and where exactly one is placing one's feet.

      Unless you're me. Love fighting in heavy rain, it's so nice not to have to worry about dust or getting hot. Of course, as soon as I stop fighting and start chilling, well, that's a different matter.

    3. Sentry duty in the rain is no fun. DAMHIK

    4. My unit (156th Maint. Co.) shared our post (Pinder Barracks) with two artillery battalions. We also shared guard duty and the mess hall. One night my buddy was on post guard, and was assigned to one of the motor pools. It was snowing that night. He was dutifully trudging up and down the rows of parked vehicles when the guard jeep rolled up while making it's rounds. My buddy had about 3 inches of snow build up on his shoulders and helmet. He looked the Sergeant of the guard dead in the eyes and said "I don't want to play army anymore".

  5. You almost had me with the second supply truck. Tricky. Especially since you told us the Jerries knew some English.

    Nice way to keep the tension racked up to '10' on the story line. And now Wallace has cheated death yet another day, until some other Rear Area Fool (RAF? nah, that's plane talk) screws him over.

    1. Sgt Wallace will have more "interesting" times.

  6. It would be a real shame if they decided to take a secondary road to escape some scrutiny and hit an uncleared mine.

    1. Stop peeking inside my head. That almost happened!

  7. Constant stream of decisions made and actions taken open countless doors snd close countless others. It'll be interesting to see where their path takes them.

    Great stuff as always Sarge!

    1. Thanks Shaun!

      Life is indeed a constant stream of decisions made and actions taken.

  8. We're enjoying the narrative here in Ormond-by-the-Sea. Never enough. Maybe you'd consider posting twice daily. :-)

    1. Ah, if I only had the energy.

      And the time. 😉

  9. (Don McCollor)...A caution on reading maps by red light (for security or to preserve night vision). Anything red on the map becomes invisible. A WW2 US sub came to grief because reefs and shoals were marked in red on the chart...

    1. Not sure how the Germans printed their maps, but yes, red won't show up.

  10. here it was 0145 but I could not retire until reading the installment. This episode reminded me of the Battle of the Bulge when a whole unit of Germans had infiltrated the American lines disguised as GIs.

    Then Grenadier Hans Pfeiffer had had an idea...

    Did you intend 2 "had"s?

    I was always amazed at how a red light is supposed to be "invisible" to onlookers, but it is more about the eye's rods and cones isn't it?

    This reminds me that once the battle starts there is chaos and the side makinkg the fewest mistakes usually wins.

    1. "had had" - we've had that discussion before, it was intentional.

      I don't think the red light is invisible, it just doesn't carry as far as a white light.

    2. When I was in the reserves, we took "angle head" GI flashlights, removed the clear lens, then installed the red AND white lenses. This give you a flat red disc at night for signaling, with no glow that can be seen from the side.


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