Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Steel On Steel


Unterfeldwebel Hasso Bielefeld dropped down into his vehicle just as an American anti-tank round glanced off the front glacis just below his hatch and went screaming into the air with a shower of sparks.

"That was close," he screamed, followed by, "target tank, 100 meters, engage!"

The big 75 mm gun recoiled, spitting out the shell casing. The loader, Hans Stoecker had another round "up the spout" in no time, screaming, "Panzergrenate geladen!"¹

"Hit!" Bielefeld was looking, there, another tank to the right of the one they'd just hit. The tank they had hit had stopped abruptly, as it slewed to the right, heavy smoke coming from the engine compartment. When he saw the turret moving, he realized that it wasn't dead yet, a mobility kill yes, but the gun was still in action.

"Jesus, Ted, what the f**k was that?" Sgt Red Wilson, commanding the Sherman named "Red Ryder," screamed as his vehicle was jarred, rocking to the left, then slamming to a halt while slewing to the right. Wilson could smell smoke, he didn't like that.

"I dunno Red, shit I think we're hit! Engine's not responding, controls are jammed!" Pvt Ted Bosworth, "Red Ryder's" driver, was trying to get the engine going again, to no avail.

Cpl Billy Newsome, "Red Ryder's" gunner, his face to his sight, yelled out, "Target assault gun, range 100 yards! Firing!"


Sgt Mac Peterson's tank, "Tennessee Whiskey," had gotten off the first shot. "Shit! It bounced right off the son of a bitch!"

Sgt Bob Norwood moved his sight slightly down and to the left, the next shot should do the trick, he thought. But at that moment the left side of the tank dropped into a shallow depression, as his foot hit the trigger pedal, the shot went into the air, hitting nothing but pine branches.

"Damn it Louis, hold the f**king tank steady!" Then he realized that the shot shouldn't have gone high like that, "Mac, the f**king gyro stabilizer just shit the bed!"

Cpl Louis Clark, "Tennessee Whiskey's" driver, yelled back, "We're in the woods damn it, you try and avoid the f**kin' trees! Damn dip in the ground, hang on." With that Clark gunned the engine, causing the tank to shoot forward onto more level ground.

"Scheiße!" The gunner in Unteroffizier Johannes Brandt's StuG swore as the tank he had fired at jumped out of the way, just as he fired.

"Lay the gun again Willi, take the shot!"

As Gefreiter Willi Bachmann, ordered the driver, Panzerschütze Fritz Schiffhauer to turn 10 degrees to the right an anti-tank round from one of the still mobile American tanks hit the vehicle directly in the lower hull. The round penetrated, killing Schiffhauer instantly.

"Get us up the hill Bert, those guys have no turret, move to their flank, we can kill 'em all!" SSgt Tom Michaelson knew they had to move, at this range those Kraut 75s would tear them apart. As he watched through his vision slits, he didn't think they were going to make it. These Krauts knew what they were doing.

Seconds later a 75 mm anti-tank round hit the turret ring of "Tommy's Tank," it penetrated, decapitating PFC Mike Herbst, the loader, spraying his blood all over the inside of the turret. Cpl Bill Thompson, Michaelson's gunner, looked to his left, the Kraut round had gone right through Mike and then through the back of the turret.

He tried to move the turret, no such luck, the hit had destroyed the gears in the turret ring, rendering the traverse useless. But the gun was now aimed at one of the StuGs which was backing away from a burning vehicle so he stomped on the floor pedal trigger.

The round missed.

Brandt's StuG was starting to burn, loose insulation in the crew compartment had been ignited by the round which penetrated the driver's position. He immediately ordered the crew to bail out.

They did so into a hail of rifle and machine gun fire.

Brandt was hit by at least four rounds, none of which had actually been aimed at him. He was killed instantly and fell over the side of his vehicle, his legs caught on an ammunition storage bracket in the compartment, leaving his corpse draped over the side.

Panzerschütze Siegfreid Kandler was hit in the chest and in the leg as he bailed from the now burning vehicle. He managed to crawl away from the StuG and rolled into a depression in the forest floor. It hurt to breathe, he wondered if he'd been hit in a lung. He tried desperately to bind the wound in his thigh, he didn't know that his femoral artery had been completely severed, he bled to death in less than a minute.

Gefreiter Willi Bachmann hesitated, he'd let Kandler jump first while he attempted to stop the fire in the crew compartment. Too late he realized that it was a fool's errand, one of the high explosive rounds cooked off and killed him instantly.

Brandt's vehicle was burning fiercely now. Unteroffizier Klaus Bittner, commanding the third StuG of Bielefeld's platoon had his driver back away from the burning pyre, glancing in that direction, he saw the body of his friend Johannes hanging from his hatch, burning. He shuddered in horror. It was not the first time he'd seen a friend burn, he prayed that it was the last, though he thought that to be a false hope.

Looking again to the front, he saw the crew of one of the Shermans, the one with the burning engine compartment, jumping from their vehicle and scrambling to the rear. He had the thought of engaging them with the machine gun mounted on the roof of his vehicle, but the amount of incoming Ami tracer fire dissuaded him from that particular form of suicide.

Tom Michaelson had ordered his gunner, Bill Thompson, over to the loader's position, Mike Herbst's body being shoved unceremoniously aside. The driver, Bert Allison, was trying desperately to unjam the turret, if he could smash the damaged gears aside, they might regain control of the gun in azimuth.

"Got it!" Allison yelled, then scrambled back into his driver's seat. There was a blank spot where they couldn't point the gun, but that was to the right, the action at the moment was all to the left.

Bielefeld saw the Sherman he had hit begin to move again. He had a perfect shot to the side of the enemy tank. He ordered Gefreiter Sigismund Hecht to engage that vehicle. The cannon barked and the round went home. Bielefeld could see a glowing hole in the side of the tank, just above the middle set of road wheels. In the next instant, that tank exploded.

Sgt Bob Norwood, Tennessee Whiskey's gunner saw "Tommy's Tank" blow itself apart, he knew that the crew had had it, no one could survive that sort of explosion. He yelled over the intercom, "Michaelson's had it, they just f**king blew up. Damn it, I see the bastard!"

He stomped on the floor pedal trigger and sent a round into a StuG which had been backing up. He didn't know that it wasn't the StuG which had killed Michaelson and his crew.

The nose of Bittner's StuG had dropped just as the American anti-tank round was fired, it entered the roof of the crew compartment. Obergefreiter Gotthard Gartner, the gunner, was wounded by splinters from that shell which had passed through the gun breech after penetrating the roof. The gun was destroyed and the loader lost both hands as he was loading a round when the vehicle was hit.

Bittner and Gartner dragged Panzerschütze Rolf Hebl, the loader, out of the commander's hatch while the driver, Gefreiter Hans-Ulrich Karch lifted Hebl's legs clear. The four crewmen were clear of the vehicle when it exploded.

Bielefeld realized that his platoon had been reduced to a single vehicle, his. He wanted to withdraw, but his orders were clear, stop the Ami tanks. He saw two of those, both burning brightly in the gathering gloom. Were there any more out there?

Night was falling, Mac Peterson knew that both of the other Shermans in his platoon were dead. He saw two burning StuGs as well, he had seen three. "There's another Kraut out there, anyone see it? Where the f**k is the other one?" Peterson asked his crew.

They didn't know that their tank was in shadow and virtually invisible to the surviving German vehicle. That vehicle itself was in the shadows and was also invisible to the Americans.

As Peterson wondered what to do next, he heard someone pounding on his hatch. He opened it to see SFC Bud Pedley.

"We're gonna hold here, it's getting dark and we don't know what's out there. Looks like we traded two for two. I've got my guys digging in, you okay with holding this little chunk of the woods for now?"

"Do I have a choice Bud?"

"Hell no."

"Gonna be a long night I think." Peterson used his field glasses to scan the opposite slope, he couldn't see anything other than the burning vehicles, theirs and those of his friends. Hopefully, someone from those two Shermans had survived.

Though he felt a little guilty thinking it, he rather hoped those German crews were all dead. They had killed some of his friends this day. Mac was learning to hate.

If anyone had looked at a calendar, the Americans would have noticed that it was the 31st of October, Halloween.

Halloween, in the Green Hell of the Hürtgenwald.

¹ Anti-tank round loaded!

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  1. Tense reading Sarge.....just...tense.....close range, limited manoeuvring, forest, nighttime, steel coffins, thanks, now my claustrophobia is going to kick in.......:)

    1. Things happen very fast in a meeting engagement in close terrain. Very messy!

  2. Sarge, you have exceeded yourself. Riveting stuff and very much contains what must have been the confusion and frustration and fear of the moment.

    1. Writing on my daughter and son-in-law's porch (glassed in) with a very nice view, seems to inspire me!

  3. For some reason, I was reminded of the description "night assault with knives and hand grenades".

  4. Wow. Tight quarter combat with tanks.....suspenseful.

  5. Damn, Sarge, good writing, I got completely into the fight. I found myself holding my breath and having my heart speed up while reading this scene - as far as learning to hate, my dad certainly learned to hate Germans, at least the ones who killed his friends and wounded him. I know some former adversaries learn to get along with each other, even respecting each other, but those involved in personal combat have a hard time doing that.

    1. My Uncle Charlie despised the Germans until the day he died.

      Of course, all the ones he met were trying to kill him!

  6. Sarge, in thinking about it further, this chapter reminds me a lot of some passages in the unit history from my dad's tank battalion. They were very graphic in their detail about the nature of close combat in both urban and rural areas. You've done a good job of capturing the terror and desperation in such circumstances.

  7. Sarge, got into the story recently. Is there one place where I can pick up from Normandy landing to issue one week ago?

    1. I forgot to include it in the original post, but have since updated the post. I plan on adding this to all of the future posts (and if I get time going back and loading it into the older posts.) But if you go here and look for "The D-Day Series" followed by the "To the Rhine Series" you can go back to the 2nd of June 1944, and follow along from there. There's other bits of fiction out there as well, which may get expanded to book series in the future.

      Cletus, thanks for reading!

      Scroll down to The D-Day Series
      after that, move on to The "To The Rhine" Series
      You've got a lot of catching up to do.

  8. DAMN! Great writing, Sarge. Put the reader right in the middle of the tank version of a barroom brawl.

  9. Like Tom in NC, I found myself tensing and clenching as the fighting happened. Tit-for-Tat in the woods. Not fun. Well, at least the woods didn't catch fire, yet.

    And Halloween... What ghosts will both sides see? Romans? Goths? Huns? Teutons? Napoleonic French? The lost of the 30 years War? Or even older and more eldrich visions?

    And I must commend you on shot-placement knowledge and gunnery. The gyro STB... the flat crew compartment being an easier target... the turret ring gear being damaged... These are things that make the story seem so true. And splinters flailing around in a tank being so dangerous. Not a lot of writers get it right. You did.

    Can't wait to see what's next.

    1. It's really too wet for the forest to go up in smoke. I don't recall reading about any forest fires in either the Hürtgen or the Ardennes, though I'm sure there was the occasional localized blaze. This area of Europe at this time of year is pretty soggy. I lived not that far away from all of this. (Maybe a thirty minute drive north of Aachen.)

      As for the technical details, I read far more than I probably should, it really helps though when you have some knowledge of examples of that sort of thing.

      Thanks Beans.

    2. The forest fires occurred in the next year: the summer months of 1945 saw the Hürtgenwald ablaze with numerous fires. These fires started by themselves when the damp forest earth had dried out enough by July/August '45 so that the remains of the numerous white phosphorus (WP) shells fired some months ago ignited by themselves. Even in 1947 and 1948 it was a common occurrence to see a spontaneous, self-ignited (by WP) fire break out in the Hürtgenwald.
      @OldAFSarge: Thank you very much for these outstanding stories. You are a true 'raconteur' and a master story teller to boot with an impeccable subject matter expertise. Please write the book.

    3. Hmm.. Experience in Central Pacific, all that phosphorus was either buried or pushed into the water. Would not have thought that the phosphorus would stay wet until the forest dried. Very interesting.

    4. Interesting data point on the WP igniting once the ground dried out. Must have been nasty!


  10. Damn that was a meatgrinder, only with burning fuel and steel shattered added...
    The thing is, for every sherman lost 2 new rolled from assembly lines back in the CONUS
    Panzers and stugs, definitely not so.
    Though it could be worse for the US crews, running into Jagdpanthers for example
    (think king tigers long 88 on panther chassis, with heavily sloped armor easily capable of deflecting even 76mm rounds)
    here is another video by the workaholic youtuber of ww2 history, Mark Felton
    showcasing some very unlucky Churchill squadron running into just 3 jagdpanthers

  11. Hey AFSarge;

    The spalling I think is the technical term when a round hits a tank and the splinters plays havoc with the crew. Excellent story, you sucked us right in. Can't wait for the next installment :)

    1. Spalling occurs when parts of the tank's interior walls fragment when hit, don't even need a penetration. In this case Gartner was actually wounded by splinters from the shell which penetrated the vehicle, not by spalling.



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