Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Tanks in the Forest

Ogden Pleissner (1905-1983) Tanks in the Hurtgen Forest, Germany, 1945

"Hold up Louis, the lieutenant's spooked about something." Sgt Mac Peterson popped his hatch and nearly bumped into the sergeant riding with his squad on the back of Peterson's tank, "Tennessee Whiskey".

"Sorry Ted, I told ya not to lean over the f**kin' hatch like that."

Sgt Ted Ramsey laughed and said, "You tankers man, you're like a jack-in-the-box, all ya need is a crank on the side of the turret to play music before ya pop out." The other seven men riding on the tank had a laugh at Peterson's expense.

"How'd ya like to walk back down that f**king trail?" Peterson growled.

The infantrymen looked back at the muddy trail and the closeness of the trees along the steep path. They were still amazed that the tanks had had trouble coming up. One tank had nearly slid off the track and only the skill of its driver kept it, and its riders, from tumbling down the mountainside.


The infantryman and the tanker both turned to see Sergeant First Class Harold "Bud" Pedley, Thompson held comfortably across his chest, coming down the trail. He was the acting platoon leader since the death of their lieutenant a week ago, bets were already being placed as to how soon SFC Pedley got his field commission. It wasn't a question of "if" they figured, but "when."

"Lieutenant Oswald wants us to check out the woods ahead, it's even closer up there than it was coming up the hill. A tanker wouldn't see a Kraut with a panzerfaust until he almost ran him over. L.T. wants us to beat the bushes ahead of his tanks."

Ramsey and his very understrength squad dismounted from the back of Peterson's tank. All were grumbling, they liked riding instead of walking into battle. But they all knew that these Shermans would be easy meat for Kraut infantry in these woods. More than one man in the platoon remembered Normandy and the hedgerows and had seen the Krauts kill more than one Sherman in the tight quarters. A couple of men had even been there when Pedley had won his second rocker¹ by knocking out a German Panther tank with a bazooka.

But for now, it was into the woods in skirmish order to flush any lurking Germans to make a way for these four tanks of the 3rd Armored Division.

Hauptmann Jürgen von Lüttwitz, wounded left arm now in a sling, was looking for his company clerk, then he remembered that the man was dead, Grenadier Johannes Schwartz had been shot through the head by an American sniper. His company first sergeant was badly wounded, the Sanitäter, Peter Krause, didn't think he would last the night. His left leg was nearly severed below the knee, his left arm was ripped up, he also had a number of superficial chest wounds from a mortar blast, he had lost a lot of blood.

"We should evacuate der Spieß, Herr Hauptmann. If we don't, he'll probably die like Dietrich. There was nothing I could do for Dietrich, a real doctor might have saved him. Same for der Spieß."

"I know Peter, but consider this, we started with thirty-four men, including me. Six were killed, Peter Böhm has extensive burns from the white phosphorus and can't fight, der Spieß is hurt badly, we have two men wounded but still in the fight. I'm down to one arm. That leaves us twenty-three healthy men, if I send four men to take Schmitz and Böhm to the rear, that leaves nineteen men to hold this position."

Opa Köhler came down the trench, "Sir, I've sent Fuchs and Stolz into the woods off our left flank with a panzerfaust each. There's a really narrow track down there, if they can pick off the lead tank, we won't have to worry about armor coming up that way."

Von Lüttwitz looked at Krause, "Make that seventeen healthy men Peter, including you. Are you ready to carry a rifle and kill?"

Krause looked at the captain and shrugged, "If it helps sir, of course I will."

"You'll need to remove your vest and armband marking you as a Sanitäter, and lose that white helmet."

"Of course sir, if you need me..."

Von Lüttwitz shook his head and looked first to the left, then down the slope. "What are the damned Amis waiting for?" he wondered aloud.

Three Americans were on point, PFC Leo Worth, Pvt Jack Gaither, and Pvt Herb Sullivan, they were scanning the woods to either side of the track and straight ahead, but it was tough to make out anything in the shadows. They were trying very hard, but all three men were new to combat. Worth had some experience but Gaither and Sullivan had arrived from the Replacement Depot only three days ago.

Sullivan didn't know it but he had looked right at a young German not ten yards into the woods, but hadn't noticed him. He continued on down the track. Some twenty yards back were another five infantrymen, just behind them was 2Lt Oswald in the lead tank.

If young Grenadier Hans-Peter Fuchs hadn't been dehydrated, he probably would have wet himself. He had sworn that that American had seen him, the man had looked directly at him, then had moved on. If that Ami had seen him, Fuchs would have been killed on the spot, he didn't know if he should even fire his Panzerfaust at a man. Sure, it would work, but his orders were to kill a tank, not a fellow with a rifle. Just like him, the thought passed briefly through his mind.

He saw the tank, and hoped that Willi didn't fire too soon, he had been surprised when the young fellow with spectacles had volunteered to go with him. Stolz and Pfeiffer were close friends and Pfeiffer had been burned in the mortar attack, not badly but it was a painful wound. Stolz had said that he wanted to "make the Americans pay." Fuchs thought him an odd little chap, but he did seem determined.

The second group of Americans were close now, they had passed Willi's position and were moving past Fuchs now, from Willi's position came the whooshing sound of a Panzerfaust firing. "Too soon Willi!" Fuchs thought.

2Lt Fred Oswald was scanning the forest to both sides, being in amongst these trees gave him the willies, this was no place for a tank. One Kraut with a cheap, one-shot panzerfaust could easily kill one of his tanks. Guy probably wouldn't survive the attack, but neither would the tank. He began to raise his hand to halt the platoon, there, off to the right, was that a Kraut?

He heard the sound of the panzerfaust firing from the other direction but didn't see it. As he started to duck down into his turret, the German rocket-propelled weapon hit his Sherman just behind the driver's position. It quickly burned through the thin side armor.

The stream of hot gas and molten steel cut loader PFC Sherb Morrison nearly in half as he sat in his seat. Unfortunately the same stream hit some of the ready ammunition, high explosive as they expected to meet infantry, not armor.

Pvt Jack Gaither saw the German who fired the rocket an instant too late. He brought his rifle to bear and fired a quick three rounds at the young German. Gaither noticed that the kid was wearing glasses, they actually reflected the light from the now burning Sherman he'd killed. But he didn't live long to celebrate his victory.

Grenadier Willi Stolz gasped as the first round passed close by his ear, a second round clipped his shoulder, and a third round slammed into his chest, just below the sternum. He dropped to the ground as all the air was punched from his lungs.

He remembered in school playing football, he was part of the wall, an indirect kick had hit him squarely in the solar plexus, knocking the wind out of him. He remembered lying on the field, gasping for air until one of his teammates came to help him. Why was there no one there to help him now?

Desperately Willi tried to breathe, his mouth was filling with liquid at the same time. What was going on, where was his friend Fritz? Why does this hurt so much?

Willi Stolz managed to gasp out one word with his last breath, "Mutti!²"

Hans-Peter Fuchs knew that Willi had to be dead, after the first American had shot at him, so had the other two. He had seen Willi briefly, then he was gone. Fuchs didn't move, perhaps the Amis would think that Willi was the only shooter.

The Sherman that Willi had hit was burning fiercely now, he could hear its crew screaming as they burned. Mercifully, one of the rounds in the ready rack exploded, tearing the tank apart and ending the suffering of its crew. The explosion also killed two of the Americans who had been walking in front of the tank.

In the ensuing chaos, Fuchs slipped away into the forest. He was surprised that he was crying. Like a small child he thought, I'm weeping like a little kid.

SFC Pedley had been hit by a piece of 2Lt Oswald's tank, it had knocked him off the track and into the woods, which had saved his life. Moments later the tank exploded, Willis and Jefferson were both killed by the explosion, Morrisey and Jackson were both wounded, Morrisey badly.

SFC Pedley looked around, "Well this f**king tank attack is over before it began." he thought.

The word got down to Josephson's 1st Battalion command post nearly an hour after the tank attack had failed. He was with his company commanders discussing the called off attack which had cost his unit four dead and one wounded, all from his sniper teams. The main attack had been called off by regiment just before they were ready to go in.

"Who'd we lose Gus?"

1Lt Gus Chambers was now commanding Josephson's old company, so he was still used to talking with him, he'd need to get to know his other company commanders soon. He wasn't sure what was next up, but he was expecting bad news.

"We lost four men dead - McGraw and Charles from Charlie Company, North and Farnsworth from Baker Company, and we've got one man wounded and another missing from Paddock's 2nd Platoon." Chambers didn't need to read from the report in his hand, the names were burned into his mind.

"Who's missing?"

"Hebert is wounded, Doc says he's gonna be fine, but Charlie Gammell's missing. When the Kraut mortars began to land, one round hit near Gammell and Hebert's position, blew Hebert right down the hill, he's got bruises, a bad cut over his right ear, and a mild concussion. When he came to, he didn't see Gammell. He doesn't know what happened to him."

"Shit!" Josephson knew four of those men. McGraw and Charles were his old company's sniper team, Gammell and Hebert were from the best platoon, he thought, in his old company. The big kid from Vermont, Gammell, had turned into a really fine soldier. Probably dead somewhere up on that goddamned hill.

Night was falling when Gammell opened his eyes. He was disoriented and had a splitting headache. He didn't move at first, vaguely he remembered a shell going off as he and Bear were shifting position. Then it all came back, Kraut mortars.

He had seen Bear go ass over teakettle down the hill, silhouetted against the smoke from a burning tree. "Damn, I hope he's okay." Gammell said silently to himself. As his wits came back, he felt around for his rifle. There, there it is.

His hand was on the butt of his rifle, as he pulled it to him, he realized that his rifle was useless to him now, he held the shattered stock in his hand, the barrel was gone.


At least I'm still alive, the young Vermonter, still shy of his eighteenth birthday, thought to himself.

"Guess I'm camping out tonight." he mumbled. It was starting to get cold at night, but he'd seen worse back home.

"It's gonna be a long night." Gammell sighed as he tried to make himself comfortable in the small depression near a stand of small pines. At least he would be out of the wind.

Of course, it started raining.

¹ US Army WWII sergeant stripes consist of three chevrons pointing up, each promotion after sergeant adds a "rocker" (a curved stripe) under the chevrons. Staff Sergeant has one rocker, Sergeant First Class two, and Master Sergeant three. (See here.)
² Mama!


  1. OAFS - by context, thinking you may have meant "hadn't had" in this sentence: "They were still amazed that the tanks had had trouble coming up." Once again, another great job at storytelling, the last section was quite the relief.

    Mike the EE

    1. No, the tanks did have trouble going up that trail. Mud and steep slopes are not friends even to a fully tracked vehicle. Which tends to surprise non-tankers.

      Thanks Mike.

    2. There are some awe- and fear- inspiring videos of tanks doing the powerslide down muddy hills and on ice easily found on the interwebs. Um... no... nope... nyet... not this fat boy! I'll ride a horse. I'll ride a truck. Ride a tank on mud and ice? Nooooope.

  2. Taking a tank into a close quarters forest like that sounds terrifying.

    Such good writing. Thank you.

    1. It is frightening, tankers like a bit of space around them.

      Thanks TB!

    2. Tanks are creatures of the open spaces.

    3. And stumps are fantastic ways to de-track a tank. Especially the American medium tank series with the narrow road track (later suspensions like the Easy-8 had wider tracks and didn't pop off as easy...)

    4. Oh yes, stumps are no fun. The Army back in the '70s had a comic book pamphlet on how to knock out a tank, jamming a log between the road wheels works wonders.

    5. With Connie? They knew what would grab our attention!

      Didn’t realize that forest was so thick

      What was the Spiess again? Nickname for the medic?

      How do you get all the German characters in there?

    6. Nope, I don't remember Connie being in the book. What I had was an early version.

      Der Spieß, was the German word for their company sergeant major or first sergeant, also known as the die Kompanie-Mutter, the company mother. Literally means "The spear." This may refer to the sergeant of a flintlock-era company having carried a polearm rather than a musket, or it may relate to Latin pilus prior "leading spear," the senior centurion in a cohort.

      The German characters are accessible via my computer's character map, there are also "alt" codes I can use to enter them. One of the pages on the blog (see the sidebar) has a partial listing of "alt" codes. (So called because you hold down the alt key while entering a number from the number pad on the keyboard, the numbers up top won't work.)

  3. With Japanese it could have worked better, they had minimal antitank weapons. Against Germans with late war Panzerfaust everywhere, in such clise quarters, it was almost doomed to fail. Soviets lost over 2000 tanks as late as Berlin battle, mostly to Panzerfaust....

    1. Well, the Japanese did have a habit of strapping explosives to themselves and becoming human panzerfausts, but yes, nothing like the ETO in the later stages of the war.

    2. Though the Japanese had a bad habit of making really awesome anti-tank traps (think the tiger trap out of old movies) and anti-tank trenches and other anti-tank fixed features that funneled American tanks into narrow areas covered by self-propelled explosives (the aforementioned Jap-with-a-bomb) or the limited transverse naval cannon that was dismounted off of some sunk ship.

      At least the Central Pacific was flat lands so the US tanks didn't have to worry too much about plunging high velocity. Not so the Southeastern and Eastern Pacific islands. The Japanese had few high-powered cannons but used them quite well.

    3. The Japanese soldier was good at making his limited resources go further than other armies.

    4. For all their craftyness, Japanese were just rolled over when they met real tanks with good crews, see Soviet veterans of ETO versus Manchria force... And it is easier to machinegun man running at you with explosives strapped on than one hiding in cover with panzerfaust ready to use...
      Germans even managed to produce first ATGM, the X-7 Rottkapchen (Red Riding Hood), though its limited use in 1945 was more of a technology demonstration than real threat due to low numbers. Eventually armies after WW2 started to pick up the idea, and rest is just ATGM: Generations TV series :P

    5. Imagine the thrill of opening your hatch after a fire fight and finding ATGM guidance wires all over your tank.


  4. I'm finding that I really look forward to reading this story in the morning!

  5. It is a bad choice to make - send the experienced men to recon and risk losing them or send newbies and use them up as noisy ambush finders. On the one hand, the old hands are better at seeing stuff, but the loss of an old hand is very damaging. On the other hand, Repple-Depple is usually full of FNGs that are just about useless except for human shields or human mine or ambush detectors (in a rather life-ending way,) but their lack of experience means they could miss critical things (like a panzerfaust-carrying German.) Hobson's Choice...

    And both sides are attriting right and left. This comes down to the siege equation, the old 'It takes 4 attackers to defeat 1 defender' so start and see who runs out of bodies or will-to-fight first.

    I really hope the Germans get a massive case of surrender going before it's too late. Patton famously said that once you're within 300 yards of the enemy, it's too late for them to surrender. And woods battles rarely have 300 yard distances (well, at the beginning, but maybe after the artillery on both sides clears the trees...)

    Yay, Gammell is alive! Wonder if he's going to pull a Sgt. York on the enemy? Or if he's going to channel the future Weather Channel and just 'hunker down?' Guess I'll have to wait.

    1. The battle in the Hürtgenwald was nasty, continued right on through the Battle of the Bulge. We didn't really break through there until the whole German line began to fall back after their Ardennes Offensive was stopped and was rolled back.

      We shall see what Gammell does, he is resourceful, but he's also young.

  6. Dad was 3rd AD. They were bogged down on a flat field in mud. 88s chewed them up.

  7. 1964-66 some of us Combat Engineers received real life training in the Hurtgen Forest. A scary place with lots of unexploded mines and other assorted nasties. Not a fond memory.

    1. I can well imagine. Standing on the sunlit uplands looking down into those forests was enough for me.

    2. Do you think there’s still a lot of unexploded ordinance in there?

    3. Probably. Not a year goes by that they don't find human remains as well.

    4. Isolated firefights, that both sides lost.

  8. Bad luck, driving an old clunker tank that didn't have wet stowage.

    1. The ready ammunition was out in the open. So the loader doesn't have to dig around for it.

  9. Hey AFSarge;

    I was driving a "Track" A 113 based vehicle in the mud and snow through the forest and you ain't kidding, it ain't fun when the vehicle starts sliding and the tracks are spinning and you ain't going in the direction the tracks are spinning....until the tree or rock stops you...Well anyway. then you have to work your way back out...and that ain't fun either...usually involved a lot of manual labor. Excellent story


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