Friday, October 9, 2020

The Dark of the Forest

(Source)

The machine gun nest was perfectly positioned. It made use of an older defensive structure which predated the West Wall. A firing slit, low to the ground, with a one hundred and twenty degree arc of fire covered a wide opening in the forest. Three men were normally posted with the gun, an older MG34 on a tripod with ample ammunition. They were supported by two squads of infantry in well-camouflaged dugouts with overhead cover to either flank. At the moment their lieutenant was with them.

They had conversed in hushed tones, the stillness of the forest seemed to press in on the men, almost as if they were in a church, before going silent to simply observe. The forest has a strong influence on the German psyche, the lieutenant an educated man, was thinking of a poem by Goethe, Gefunden -

Ich ging im Walde
So für mich hin,
Und nichts zu suchen,
Das war mein Sinn.

Im Schatten sah ich
Ein Blümchen stehn,
Wie Sterne leuchtend
Wie Äuglein schön.¹

Before he started the third stanza, a man stepped into the open across from the machine gun position, a man in olive drab clothing, a thick scarf around his neck, tucked into the collar of his field jacket. An American infantryman. He was carrying a rifle, was moving carefully, slightly crouched. As he stepped out of the gloom of the forest, he paused. Dropping to one knee, he raised his open right hand into the air, pausing for just a moment, then dropping his hand to his rifle once more.

He was scanning the area to his flanks and front, the lieutenant knew that the man was a scout, he wasn't alone, no doubt the remainder of his unit were nearby, in support. The German lieutenant leaned forward and whispered in the gunner's ear, "Wait."


PFC Hector Lopez didn't like this, the woods opened out here, about 40 yards to his front and a long stretch to both his left and right, it looked like a firebreak, but one not marked on the map. The way these things worked, the damn thing probably ran for miles in both directions. He couldn't see very far into the trees to his front and that made him very nervous. Also very cautious. So he waited.

Within seconds, his squad leader, Sgt Greg Jenkins, had joined him, "What's up Hector?" As he looked around, he said, "This wasn't on the damned map, was it?"

"Nope. I don't like it Sarge."

"Me neither, let's just slide on back into the trees and think this over."

The two men slipped back the way they had come, PFC Lopez never turning his back on the clearing. He was spooked.


The gunner turned to look at his lieutenant and raised an eyebrow, as if to say, "What now?" 

Again the lieutenant mouthed, "Wait."

They didn't have long to wait.


It didn't take long for the platoon sergeant, SSgt Herb Graves to come up to join 2nd squad. "What's the hold up, Greg?"

"Take a peek Herb, that firebreak ain't on the map."

"Shit. Wait here."

But before he could do anything, the company commander, Captain Alphonse Josephson, and First Sergeant Mort Saeger had joined them.

"Where's your lieutenant?" The captain asked, looking at Graves.

"With 3rd Squad Cap'n, we've got 1st Squad in reserve, L.T.'s got the left flank, I got the right. You see that?" SSgt Graves pointed to the open space to their front.

Captain Josephson checked his map, then with a puzzled look on his face, looked up at Graves. "No sir, we ain't lost, that," he said, pointing again, "ain't on my map either Cap."

"Shit." The captain consulted his watch, then looked to both flanks. They had to push on, those were the orders, and it wasn't going to stay light out much longer. "Get your people on line, we're going to push forward across this break. Stay low, wait for my signal."

"Right." SSgt Graves looked at Jenkins, who got his men on line, Graves started to go back to bring up the 1st Squad, when the captain stopped him.

"I'll bring 'em up myself Herb. I need you here."

"Yessir."


The German lieutenant placed his left hand on the gunner's shoulder. That man looked back and the lieutenant winked at him, mouthing the word, "Demnächst.²"

The gunner watched as a line of Americans moved cautiously into the open, good intervals between the men, these guys were well trained. But...

The lieutenant squeezed the gunner's shoulder and barked, "Jetzt!³"


A single 7.92 mm round, out of a burst of ten rounds, just grazed the top of Lopez's steel pot, tearing his helmet off his head. As he wasn't wearing his helmet strap he wasn't hurt but he was stunned by the close call and he fell over backwards.

The first burst from the German machine gun went high, the gunner was no doubt overanxious. However, the fire from the gun's supporting infantry was generally on target and at least five Americans went down. Two dead, the others wounded to varying degrees.

2nd Squad's grenadier, PFC Mike Cantwell had been looking in exactly the right direction to see the muzzle flash of the German machine gun. From his prone position, he fitted a rifle grenade onto his Garand, loaded a blank cartridge, and lobbed a grenade round at where he thought the gun was. He was close.


Fragments from the grenade and a considerable amount of dirt and debris blew into the bunker through the aperture. The gunner was slightly wounded in the cheek by a grenade fragment but a lot of dirt got into his eyes, putting his gun out of action for a few critical moments. Before the assistant gunner could take over, there was nothing to fire at.


"FALL BACK!!" Sgt Greg Jenkins was yelling at the top of his lungs as he moved back into the forest followed by what was left of his squad. A flurry of rifle fire covered them as they retreated.

Once they were under cover, about twenty yards in from the clearing, he did a quick head count. Lopez was there, missing his helmet, blood trickling down his forehead, Cantwell was fine, and Pvt Mark Rizzo was clutching his left forearm, he had been grazed. Genovese and Kilpatrick were okay.

"Where's Stephen?" He looked around for his assistant squad leader, Corporal Stephen Hernandez.

"Right here Greg." He and PFC Harry Mitchell were dragging a body. "It's Will," Hernandez managed to gasp out, "he got hit right in the face, he's a goner." Jenkins looked down at the huddled form of PFC Will Scott, most of the back of his head was gone. He was clearly dead. Sgt Jenkins had the fleeting odd thought that Will looked, surprised.

Then PFC Mitchell spoke up, "McTeague and Phillips pulled Dave out of the line of fire and pulled him back into a small dip in the ground. They're out of the line of fire, I don't know how bad Hudson is hit."

Just then those three men rolled into the small gully which held the rest of their squad. Pvt Dave Hudson had a field dressing on the side of his neck, he was missing his helmet and his rifle, but otherwise looked okay, he spoke next.

"The platoon sergeant is still out there. I tried to get to him, but..."

"Are you okay Dave?" Jenkins wanted to get that straightened out first...

"Yeah, yeah Sarge, it's just a scratch, but f**ker bled like crazy."

"Get back to Doc Milbury, move."

As Pvt Hudson headed to the rear, Sgt Jenkins looked at Pvt Henry McTeague, "What did he mean that SSgt Graves is still out there?"

McTeague looked at the ground, "I saw him get hit, he went down hard. Dave tried to get to him then he was hit too. All Hell broke loose. We couldn't get to the platoon sergeant, we barely managed to get Dave out of there. Jesse was laying down fire with his M1, but man, there had to be a bunch of Krauts across the way."

"Then that damned Spandau opened up again." Pvt Jesse Phillips shook his head as he said that, "It was move or die, Sarge. Move or die."

"Shit. All right, Rizzo, you need a medic?"

"Nah, Sarge, it can wait, barely broke the skin, it just stings is all."

"Hector, I want you to go see Doc too. You look like you got your head blown off and someone sewed it back on."

"Head wounds, Sarge, they bleed a lot. But okay, okay, I'm going." Lopez went to the rear as well.

"Damn, okay, Stephen report back to the L.T., tell him that SSgt Graves is missing, we don't know his status, okay?"

McTeague said, "I think he's dead Sarge..."

"He ain't dead far as we know, Graves is one tough hombre. He might be waiting for dark before falling back, those Krauts have to be on the alert now." Sgt Greg Jenkins wasn't ready to give up on his platoon sergeant.


1Lt Nate Paddock turned white as a sheet when Cpl Hernandez reported to him.

"Did anyone see what happened?"

"Not really sir, there was a lot going on, lots of incoming rounds, we had to move, no one could get to SSgt Graves. He might be okay." Cpl Hernandez wished he had better news for the L.T., he really respected the man.

For just a brief second, Nate Paddock felt a touch of despair, felt a hollowness in his chest at the possible loss of Herb Graves, but then he collected himself.

"All right, Hernandez, get back to your squad. I'll come up in a minute, I need to make sure 1st Squad is..."

"Captain said he was going to get them up right before the shooting started." Hernandez spoke up as he stood to go. "They should be up there now."

"Okay." Paddock turned to Sgt Mike Peavey, 3rd Squad leader.

"Go ahead L.T., we got this." Peavey said, patting the lieutenant on the shoulder.

"Right, hold your positions for now, start digging in, we'll see what company has in mind. For now, we hold." Paddock moved off.

As he headed to 2nd Squad, he passed Jack Wilson and 1st Squad, they were positioned to thicken the line between 2nd and 3rd Squads. Sgt Wilson nodded as he passed by.

While it was tempting to let emotion take over and worry over the possible loss of his platoon sergeant, he owed it to the other 44 men in the platoon to stay on mission, to stay focused. He'd worry about Herb later. If there was a later.


"Herr Leutnant, what now?" The gunner had been patched up, he'd gotten his eyes cleared of grit and was waiting for the lieutenant to tell him what to do next.

"I'm surprised we haven't been smothered by their damned artillery already. Battalion says that all of their batteries are pounding Aachen. Perhaps we'll be spared that. For now, hold your positions. I have to check on the other men. Good job today Gefreiter. Keep your focus on your sector for now. I'll be back."

There was no supporting artillery for Charlie Company, as the German lieutenant had surmised.

Night fell, the forest grew darker still. Keeping its secrets as it had for over a thousand years.

Tomorrow would have to wait.






¹ Found by J.W. von Goethe
Once through the forest
Alone I went;
To seek for nothing
My thoughts were bent.

I saw i' the shadow
A flower stand there
As stars it glisten'd,
As eyes 'twas fair.

² Soon.
³ Now!

20 comments:

  1. The Germans love their forests. Near my first station in Landstuhl was a beautiful one, that many used for walks on the weekends.

    As to the platoon, will they wait for nightfall to storm the emplacement? What does a firebreak look like? A clearing in the forest?

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    1. Have you seen where high-tension power lines run through a forest, it's open the entire way. That's what a firebreak looks like, without the power lines. They are there to try to prevent the spread of any fires.

      The emplacement wouldn't be stormed, it would be flanked and taken from the rear. Provided they could punch a hole somewhere in the line.

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  2. The green in that source photo doesn't make it look as ominous as the black and white does. Trying to cross the firebreak and find/flank dugouts in the night, in that forest.....

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    1. That's the second photo I've used from PxHere and applied a filter to it. Seems to have the effect I was looking for.

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  3. Hey AFSarge;

    The memories...Whoah...When I was in 1st Inf Div the Hurtgen Forest Fight is still mentioned when the division would do maneuvers in the Forest. It was something that was passed down almost like tribal lore. Become part of the forest because we fought in the Forest and earned the right to be in the Forest, we were the defenders of the Forest against the Soviets. It was deep. The Germans have an attachment to the Forest that is hard to explain to someone that has never been stationed there, it is part of their culture. I know this one is hard to write because historically you know what is coming and you have invested in the characters and you brought them to life by your writings and you have done extraordinarily well. Keep on going.

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    1. Much like the people (not city-folk) who live around the Smoky Mountains have the mountains in their blood. It's a cultural thing that other people just don't get.

      We here in America have lucked out with so much space to sprawl in.

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    2. I almost dread what is coming. Today's post is a bit of foreshadowing I guess.

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    3. Beans - The New England forests and shores are in my blood, I couldn't really live anywhere else. Though honestly, Virginia is awfully close to that, having spent quite a bit of time there. Just the winters aren't as cold, though some might view that as a feature.

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  4. "Tomorrow would have to wait." Ain't that the truth of it? For the defenders, as well as those who would have to go up against them, that is always the most difficult of times...waiting...not what any warrior wants to do.

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    1. Waiting, a chance to worry about things, to overthink things. Not good.

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  5. Nice ambush. Dangit.

    Come across an unknown open section of land? It's either mined, it's an ambush spot or both. And if the Germans were following their very own playbook, it's both. Which means flanking the nest is going to be slow, dangerous and no fun at all.

    At least there was no wire to do the Spandau ballet on. As far as we know. Wouldn't put it past you to have wire in the woods where it can't be seen.

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    1. I won't say you've given me an idea, you often do, but a lot of times these things play out in my mind and I'm not always sure just where they're going.

      Tomorrow will have to wait...

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  6. If you want to read of the terror of the German forests, read about the loss of Varus and his legion in the Teutonberger Wald. I recommend the book by Adrian Murdoch, Rome's Greatest Defeat. The forest can be deadly.

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    1. The Germans call it die Hermannsschlacht, or Hermann's battle. The Romans knew him as Arminius.

      “Quinctilius Varus, give me back my legions!” - Caesar Augustus

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    2. It is not often that a single battle changes the course of an Empire - in that case, the Rhine was the Northern boundary o the Empire. One wonders, if they had re-engaged, would they have seen the pressures from the later invasions that destroyed the Western Empire

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    3. A fair question. I love the what ifs of history.

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  7. Very well done, if I may humbly say so. Bravo Zulu!
    --Tennessee Budd

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  8. in the immortal phrasing of E.T.
    Ouch!
    well executed ambush is a thing of beauty and horrible mess at same time
    US side was lucky to get away with relatively light casualties
    with heavy arty support tied elsewhere pushing thru well dug-in enemy infantry in difficult terrain will be nightmare
    (as it was historically)

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    1. Things are about to get harder, a lot harder.

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