Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Damn It! Armor!


Unterfeldwebel Hasso Bielefeld couldn't believe the terrain he was expected to get his small platoon of Sturmgeschütz IIIs through. The trip to the area had been eventful enough by itself.

They had detrained at Düren after a long haul from East Prussia. Traveling only by night to avoid Allied air raids and Jabos, they had still been delayed by raids which had destroyed areas of track ahead of them. The Allies didn't like German rail marshalling yards, with good reason. Most of Germany's military movements were via rail and had been so since before the First World War.

The last 25 kilometers had been by road, a road which gradually deteriorated the closer they got to the Hürtgenwald. To join up with the infantry they had been sent to support, the last few kilometers had been by an old forest trail, now they were trying to get through the woods themselves. There were vestiges of a track but the small squad of combat engineers they had with them had been dismounting so often to cut down a tree, or fill in a steep gully, that those men, under a crusty old Unteroffizier named Sepp Zumbach, were now ahead of his vehicles blazing a trail through the wilderness.

The commander of the infantry platoon with them, meant as a reinforcement for the position they were heading for, wasn't all that happy when Zumbach had told him that his infantrymen would be of more use helping his engineers than riding on the backs of Bielefeld's StuGs.

"I'm not sure I like your tone of voice Unteroffizier." Leutnant Vorwald, all of 18 years old and a freshly minted lieutenant from the training school, was a stickler for military protocol. The scion of a long line of German officers, he felt entitled to his rank. His ancestry had been his ticket to officer training rather than going to the front as an Offizieranwärter¹ and doing things "the hard way."

"Then I suggest you should complain to the Heerespersonalamt² the next time you're in Berlin. Sir." Zumbach noted with satisfaction that Vorwald's men were already disembarking from the StuGs and going forward to help his engineers.

Vorwald looked up at Bielefeld in his commander's cupola. Bielefeld shrugged his shoulders and said, "He has a point Herr Leutnant. Things are different at the front, you're not in school anymore. Sir."

Though he detected a certain amount of disrespect from these two NCOs, he would save his complaints, and any possible disciplinary action, for after this sojourn into the woods, as he viewed it. The Amis couldn't possibly expect to make any progress through these woods. He had to wonder what idiot had reported American tanks in the area.

German engineers using a chainsaw to down a tree

After spending nearly two hours looking for mines, SFC Pedley was convinced there were just the two that they had found, including the first one which Cpl Mick Lashua had spotted shortly before being gunned down by a sniper. That had cost them a further hour as the men had had to spread out and try and spot the sniper. They never did find the man who had killed Lashua, and they were all pretty angry about that.

"F**king Kraut bastards," was the sentiment voiced by Pvt Paul Ansbach. The others began muttering about not taking prisoners when SFC Pedley had recommended that "everybody shut the f**k up and get back to work."

Movement down the track was slow, Pedley was wondering if he should send a couple of scouts ahead to see if they could spot the German position. Then he looked around, the men were angry, but they were also somewhat intimidated by the forest. For morale purposes, he thought it best to keep the boys together, at least within sight of each other.

"Wilkins, Tomlinson, I want you two out ahead a bit, stay where I can see ya, but I need your eyes and ears to the front." Even that concession made Pedley nervous, he was a man of the wide open spaces of west Texas, all these trees made him uncomfortable. This place was dark and depressing, with winter coming on soon, that made it even less cheerful.

Cpl Brad Wilkins and PFC Ed Tomlinson, on the other hand, were from the far northeastern portion of the United States, Wilkins from Maine and Tomlinson from northern New York. The forest didn't bother either of them, and the hilly terrain reminded both men of home. Pedley couldn't begin to understand how a man could stand being in a place where everything was so close in, he liked being able to see what was coming from a long ways away, as he often put it.

Eventually they came to a spot where the trail just vanished. It was there, then it wasn't. Pedley went forward to see for himself.

"Geez, there ain't no way we can get tanks through here, is there?" Pedley said as he looked at Wilkins.

"I dunno Sarge, we could take down a couple of these trees, make our own path. I think we're getting closer to the Kraut position though. I can hear some kind of engine up ahead, a small one, it ain't anything I've heard before. But I'm pretty sure it isn't American."

National Archives

Bielefeld's StuGs had finally made it to von Lüttwitz's position. He was very glad to see reinforcements and armor support. As he talked with Bielefeld and Vorwald, Zumbach's engineers had headed towards the direction where the American armor was, or had been when Köhler had last seen them. Zumbach thought that perhaps they could drop a few trees to slow the American advance.

The three men turned as one when they heard firing break out towards where Zumbach's detachment had gone.

"Krauts!" Tomlinson had screamed when he saw the men moving through the forest towards them. He and Wilkins had both fired at the men, then gone to ground to avoid any return fire. But as quickly as the enemy had been there, they had just as quickly disappeared back into the shadows of the forest.

Pedley had the men deploy to either side of the new path they were attempting to follow, it wasn't so much a trail as it was an area with fewer trees which the Shermans could negotiate, albeit slowly. He moved up to his point men when he was done.

"What did you boys see?"

Tomlinson spoke first, "Just shapes really Sarge, but they weren't animals, they were human. I know none of our guys are up here, otherwise, we wouldn't be up here. So I opened up on 'em."

Wilkins stated, "I did catch a glimpse of them, definitely Krauts. Those soft caps some of 'em wear are pretty distinctive. I think they saw us at the same time we saw them. But we got the first rounds out, I think they fell back. Probably saw the tank back there."

Sure enough, Mac Peterson's vehicle "Tennessee Whiskey," now in the lead, was coming up through the forest. Pedley held up a hand to get Peterson to halt, which he did.

"Whaddaya got Sarge?" Peterson was standing in his hatch, it left him exposed to sniper fire but he needed to see where they were going, so he took the risk.

"Small party of Krauts, we drove 'em off, but I'm betting they were scouts. They know we're here, I think we're close, Mac. Let's get the infantry deployed, we need to move up on them slow like and then..." Pedley's voice trailed off as Peterson said, "Shit, they've got f**kin' tanks!"

Bielefeld had watched Zumbach's engineers scramble past his vehicle. He was low in his hatch as he'd seen far too many of his comrades shot by exposing themselves to enemy fire. He waited, they were slightly hull down where he was, he ordered his other two vehicles to deploy to his left, there was no room to deploy to the right. He had them stay back slightly in a rough echelon formation. He wanted to see what they were up against before he opened fire.

He could hear the rumble of tank engines to his front. The thought which popped unbidden into his head was, "Scheiße, sie haben verdammte Panzer.³

¹ Officer aspirant, certain enlisted men were identified as potential officers (or NCOs) and held a special grade as an Offizieranwärter designated by two stripes of braid on their epaulets.
² Army Personnel Office
³ Shit, they have damned tanks!

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  1. Me and Pedley are compadres. I'm here to tell you, moving from the wide open where nothing can sneak up on you, to the east Texas piney woods will make you claustrophobic. I used to see stars from one horizon to the other, a complete hemisphere of space. In deep east Texas, it was a small strip over the road... nothing more, and 100 foot pines blocking the view everywhere else. Longview ain't.

    This story sounds like someone trying to find a rattlesnake in a closet. Shivers..... Sakes alive.

    1. I misspoke: That's like trying to find a copperhead in Phibber McGee's closet.

    2. Grew up on the Great Plains. The joke there was 'we don't like mountains because they get in the way of the scenery'.

    3. I'm right there with y'all - after growing up in Dallas, then moving to Indiana and Ohio, I was used to being able to see weather coming long before it got to me. When I moved to NC, the green wall of pines made me feel hemmed in and a bit claustrophobic. r me quite as much after 30 years here, but I still prefer "wider, opener" spaces. It's kinda like BBQ - I've come to appreciate Carolina pork BBQ, but I still prefer Texas brisket. :-)

    4. Tanks are made for wide open places, so hatred of woods comes naturally to armor troops.

      Though, in this instance, the length of the Sherm's gun is a good thing.

  2. That is a pretty amazing picture of a chainsaw.

    A Tank Battle in a Wood. I imagine it happened, but what a claustrophobic mess it must have been.

  3. Yes a tank battle with these woods ought to be interesting. Probably no place to maneuver.

    More like who gets who first?

  4. Sarge, you are perfecting the art of the cliffhanger - on pins and needles waiting to see what happens next!

    1. Tom, I will say - having done a little bit of serialized blog writing - this medium lends itself perfectly to small vignettes that are often cliffhangers. It is just the nature of the medium - there is a limit to what most folks will read on a post and one learns to stay within it.

  5. Tempted to ask this question on the earlier post, so I'll put it in here:
    Wouldn't a snake have to be suicidal to go into McGee's closet?

    1. Snakes would do it out of sheer spite. But they would probably fall on you when you opened the door.


  6. Dang, the StuGs are hull down. And I bet the Sherms are broadside and below. And both sides are reinforced.

    Looks like it's more time in the forest fighting over the same patch of land.

    I foresee a once-fully wooded area becoming barren quickly, or not so quickly depending on how long the fighting lasts.

    Good story, damn cliffhanger.

  7. Another great installment.
    It's bad when the other guy has tanks. But, if you got tanks AND infantry, that's a different game, especially if the tanks have limited (or no) maneuver options. It's always a good idea to avoid a "fair fight" if you can, and that is where leadership comes in, and figure a wwy to to turn it into an unfair fight with odds in their favor.

  8. If Germans had time to prepare ambush, this would be 99 percent lost Sherman... US troops had Łuck of meetingu engagement, where both sides scramble to get first shot off...

  9. Stay tuned!

    Long day on the road, so I'm not answering all of the comments.

    Es tut mir Leid!

  10. (Don McCollor)...an aside. I do have some sympathy for the German engineers in the picture wrestling with that heavy clumsy brute of a chainsaw...

    1. Better than using a manual saw I would think. Quicker anyway.


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