Thursday, September 3, 2020

Belgian Shootout

National Archives
Thousands of Germans were in fact moving into the area southwest of Mons, generally along the axis of the Amiens-Cambrai-Mons highway. While the 3d Armored Division set up a line of north-south roadblocks along the Avesnes-Mons road to cut further German movement toward the northeast, the 1st Division attacked northwest from Avesnes into a confused and milling mass of retreating enemy. Blocked on the east by the 3d Armored Division, pushed on the west by the XIX Corps near Valenciennes, hemmed in on the south from Cambrai to Landrecies by the V Corps, about to be cut off on the north by the British advance beyond Tournai, and jabbed on the southeast by the 1st Division, a large, amorphous enemy group was pocketed. (Breakout and Pursuit, Martin Blumenson, Page 683)

Night was falling, Sergeant Mac Peterson and his crew had recently arrived from the United States, via England, and were brand new to the 3rd Armored Division. Peterson was a veteran and had fought in North Africa as part of Operation Torch. His tank had been destroyed in the disaster at Kasserine Pass, he had been badly wounded, his entire crew had been killed.

After a long time in hospital, he had married up with a replacement crew consisting of driver PFC Louis Clark, bow gunner Private Jerry Herring, loader Private Jim Sherwood, and gunner Corporal Bob Norwood. Clark, Herring, and Sherwood were all new to the Army whereas Cpl Norwood had nearly as much time in service as Peterson. Norwood had survived, untouched, the destruction of his tank in Normandy. He had joined Peterson's crew at the same time they received their new vehicle. Pvt Herring liked to joke that "Cpl Norwood was issued with the tank, you get the gun, you get the gunner. They came from the same factory."

Peterson's tank had been posted along a long, straight road leading into Mons. They were actually facing south as there were reports of numerous Germans trying to avoid being surrounded to the southwest of that city. American units were reporting firefights breaking out as retreating German units collided with American units. Usually the Germans surrendered, most of the men were no longer interested in dying for the Fatherland. Some, however, did not.

The rest of the platoon were nearby, posted in positions where they could cover the road and other approaches. The rest of the company were spread out almost as a net. Any Germans bagged now wouldn't have to be fought later. The sun was going down on another day, Sgt Peterson sat atop his turret and lit yet another cigarette.

"Hey, Jerry, you got any coffee left down there?" Herring had an amazing knack for finding coffee and keeping a supply onboard the tank.

"Yeah Sarge, cream and sugar? D'ya want some cookies with that?" Herring was filling one of the tin mugs he had "liberated" with the coffee he'd cadged from the officer's mess. Peterson wasn't sure how he did it, but he didn't really want to know. Though he could do without Herring's sarcasm from time to time, the kid was good to have around.

"Damn that's good! Thanks Jerry." The coffee was still nice and hot, Peterson savored it as he tossed his cigarette away. As it got dark he didn't want to give the Krauts anything to give his position away. A guy he'd known in Africa had had his head blown off when he'd lit up after dark. The Krauts would make you pay for your mistakes!


SS-Rottenführer Herbert Klepper was manning the MG 34 mounted behind the front cab of the SdKfz 251¹. He could barely keep his eyes open. They had to travel at night as the Jabos would seek them out and destroy them if they tried moving in daylight. He began to wonder if the Reich even had an air force anymore.

His was the third vehicle in a long column of vehicles: halftracks, trucks of all makes and descriptions, cars, Kübelwagens, Schwimmwagens, and others. The vehicles in the column were of many nationalities, he'd seen at least one British truck and one American truck, their identifying white stars painted over with the Balkenkreuz, they had even had tactical markings applied from once proud divisions which existed now only on paper.

His own unit, the 1st SS Panzer Pioneer Battalion was barely the strength of a reinforced platoon, three vehicles were all that were left of their original issue, the 55 men remaining were carried in those two halftracks, one Kübelwagen, and four French civilian trucks which seemed to break down every ten miles. Soon they would all be walking if this kept up.

As the driver braked, Klepper was in the midst of nodding off again, the brim of his helmet banged off the gun shield which jolted him awake. It also got the attention of his sergeant.

"Damn it Klepper, are you sleeping again? How many times are you going to slam your head into that gun shield before you decide to stay awake? Perhaps a trip back to Russia would help you stay awake?"

Klepper realized that the sergeant had no say who went where, in fact, it was quite likely that the division would be shipped back to Russia anyway after rebuilding yet again. The Leibstandarte had been in France, Greece, Russia, Italy, Russia again, then France for the Allied landing. Once known as the "Asphalt Soldiers" to the rest of the army, for it seemed that all they did was parade in Berlin or wherever the Führer happened to be, now they were known as Hitler's Fire Brigade, rushed from crisis to crisis.

What front wasn't in crisis these days?

National Archives

Though Peterson was sitting on the turret and not in the turret, he was still plugged into the tank's intercom system. He had one earphone up off his ear so he could better hear what was going on around him. Off in the distance he could hear another of the incessant firefights which seemed to keep popping up. More Krauts running into an American roadblock no doubt. Then he thought he saw something moving in the night, a dark shadow passing in front of a light colored barn, what was that?

At the same moment the driver, PFC Clark, called over the intercom, "Sarge, I'm hearing engine noises out there, a bunch of engine noises. Can't be us can it?"

Sgt Mac Peterson slid into his commander's hatch and nudged Cpl Norwood, "Whaddaya got up the spout Bob?"

"H.E., you want armor piercing? Jim, you want to..." Cpl Norwood didn't finish that sentence as Peterson called out, "Target front, some kind of truck or halftrack..."

Klepper stood a little straighter, he saw something up ahead, maybe twenty meters from the lead SdKfz 251, "What the...?" At that precise moment a bright flash followed by an almost instantaneous "BOOM!" split the night air. The lead halftrack exploded, spilling its occupants in the road, on the roofs of the nearby buildings, and Klepper swore he saw parts of one man land in one of the trees.

All Hell broke loose then, tracers lit the night and seemed to come from every direction to their front. One of those tracer rounds found one of the column's two fuel trucks, which then went up in flames, it was as if the sun had come up. Klepper saw tanks everywhere, to the front and off in the fields to his left and right. It was a proper ambush.

Somewhere to the flank an American heavy machine gun opened fire, its rounds went through the skin of the halftrack as if they were paper. When he heard his sergeant scream in agony, Klepper went over the side of the vehicle. "The Hell with this," he thought.

Peterson manned the .50 cal on the back of his turret, he saw no tanks, only a few halftracks and a number of "soft skin" vehicles, trucks and cars. Norwood seemed to have things under control in the turret and there wasn't much for Peterson to do, so he manned the big machine gun and joined in the "fun."

He saw a German jump from the third vehicle in the stalled and the rapidly going up in flames column. Looked like a Kraut halftrack, instinctively he pulled the trigger but he had no idea if he'd hit the man, so he aimed further down the column.

Men were staggering out of their vehicles, many of them with their clothes on fire, Peterson aimed for them and hoped that someone would do him that favor if he ever started to burn. They were Krauts, but they were still people. Hell, it had been a Kraut medic who had kept him alive in Tunisia until his own people could recover him, he didn't hate Germans, far from it.

Klepper felt something tug at his knapsack, it almost spun him around, but he kept running as far as he could from the now burning halftrack behind him. Without really thinking about it, he threw his helmet and his rifle away. He had had quite enough of war, it was time to give himself up. If he could do so without getting killed in the dark!

During the night, for example, a German half-tracked vehicle stumbled on a Sherman tank installed as a road obstacle. Other American tanks nearby opened fire down a straight stretch of road. When an early round set a German vehicle ablaze, illuminating others, it was "like shooting sitting pigeons." At daybreak tankers of the 3d Armored Division discovered that they had destroyed a column a mile long. During the ensuing confusion, when Medical Corps personnel captured a German general, it "did not seem at all unusual." Pfc. Gino J. Merli² of the 18th Infantry, who feigned death when his machine gun section was overrun, remained at this weapon throughout the night; at dawn more than fifty enemy dead were found nearby. The encircled Germans, who had been thinking of flight, were in no mood to fight, and only a few, including headquarters personnel of the LVIII Panzer and II SS Corps, escaped. On the afternoon of 3 September alone, the 3d Armored and 1st Divisions took between 7,500 and 9,000 prisoners. The IX Tactical Air Command claimed the destruction of 851 motor vehicles, 50 armored vehicles, 652 horse-drawn vehicles, and 485 persons. In three days about 25,000 prisoners were taken, remnants of twenty disorganized divisions. These potential defenders of the West Wall were thus swept off the field of battle. (Ibid, Page 683 - 684)

¹ SdKfz 251 = Sonderkraftfahrzeug 251, special purpose vehicle.
² For this action Pfc Merli received the Medal of Honor.


  1. Pfc. Merli was a brave and lucky fella......two Purple hearts along with a Bronze Star besides the MOH. Dang Sarge, you can spin a tale.

    1. Yes, he was a stud. I was happy to read that he lived to a ripe old age.

      Thanks Nylon12!

    2. I was hoping the wiki page would have his citation for the Chapel of the Four Chaplains award, but, no, disappointed I am.

      What a dude! Some ordinary mook, just minding his own bidness, and looking like he's about 5'6" at the most, yet to the Germans he stood 20' tall.

      Thanks for introducing us to yet another great hero.

    3. And I just stumbled across his name, mentioned almost casually in the official Army history. But as has been said from time to time, uncommon valor was a common virtue. It didn't apply to just Marines.

  2. Sarge, you hit your stride writing this tale some time ago, and it keeps getting better. I really like the personalities you create, showing the humanity on both sides as well as the inhumane. Don't know how long you intend to spin the story, but there are some interesting possibilities along this current axis of attack (Aachen, then Koln, perhaps?). Liberation of the concentration camps by the 14th AD is quite a bit off axis, but maybe one of your tanker characters ended up being a replacement in that unit?
    Wonderful that some of the heroes lived to old age - we can never repay them enough.

    1. I know for certain that we'll hit the Hürtgen Forest and the Bulge (Mac Peterson and his tank were there, introduced in the short series I wrote back in 2017). Wherever the 1st ID and the 3rd AD go, that's where we'll go with the Americans. The likelihood of me introducing new characters is always a possibility, we'll just have to see where my Muse takes me.

      I am glad that so many who fought lived on and had full lives. Though it is expected, it still hurts to hear of another WWII vet leaving this vale of tears, they gave a lot. Some gave all.

      Thanks Tom.

  3. That must have been pure hell for the Germans, retreating, retreating, running, retreating, so tired, so worn out, only to stumble upon the damned Amis set to catch them like that.

    A hell of a night. Reminds me of some of the 'capture' stories from either Gulf Wars, whole units surrendering to trucks that are lost and such. A general surrendering to a medical team? Wow. He must really have been tired, probably sick and tired...

    As usual, your writing style is smoothly received. Had a fright there for Sgt. Peterson smoking, but you got him stopped just in time. Whew. Sounds like some of the US tank vs Viet infantry encounters, when the Viets went creeping up on what was NOT supposed to be a US tank laager. Much firefighting ensued, oops.

    1. The history of warfare is replete with episodes of two forces just stumbling into each other. From squads to entire armies, sometimes you just run into trouble.

    2. Sgt Peterson smoking at night - reminds me of all the things they taught be in the Army, most were paid in blood.

    3. Remember, he put it out before the sun went down.

  4. My dad was a tank driver for 3rd AD.

  5. Super cool episode Sarge. Fleshing out an historical report with opposing viewpoints is a neat trick. Your research shines through.

    Amazing how quickly normal can change to nuts.

    1. Normal to nuts, sums it up pretty well. Many things really.

      Thanks Shaun.

  6. I am learning quite a bit about the closing months of WW2. There was a scene in the 2nd movie about Patton - a TV movie - showing a miles long column of German Wehrmacht 100s of thousands - marching down the middle of an Autobahn between a motorized American column - what a sight.

    Although this isn't applicable to your story Sarge I have often wondered if the Battle for Berlin would have been as vicious had the British and us gotten there first - the Nazis knew what was in store for them with the Russians...

    1. On your first, I've seen photos of that, simply amazing. Good scene in Band of Brothers concerning that as well.

      Good question on your second, the war in the East was ideological more than anything else, the Nazis wanted to eradicate the Soviets and the Soviets knew that. So they returned the favor.


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