Saturday, October 3, 2020

The Forest

National Archives

The platoon moved through the small German village briskly. There were still bedsheets hanging from some upstairs windows as a token of surrender. Not an inhabitant was seen, the villagers were staying well away from their windows, though they would deny it, they knew how their own boys had acted when they had swept through most of the countries in Europe in the early part of the war. It would have been nothing for a trigger happy rifleman to shoot any gawkers. But the Americans really weren't like that. But the Germans didn't know that yet.

The men moved carefully, keeping an eye on upper story windows and roof tops, some of them had been under sniper fire before. Those who had not were continually reminded by their sergeants of the possibility of getting their heads blown off if they didn't pay attention.

1Lt Nate Paddock wasn't that thrilled with the prospect of moving into the forest beyond the village, his sniper team had scouted the area the day before, the trees were packed closely together and sight lines were limited. He looked up and noticed the tall pines swaying in the increasingly colder wind. It was October here in Germany and the days were shorter and the nights colder. Paddock literally shivered at the thought of fighting in the winter.

"You okay L.T.?" SSgt Herbert Graves was about five paces behind and to his platoon leader's right. He had noticed the young lieutenant shiver and was somewhat concerned. Though the lieutenant was a damn fine soldier, every man lost his edge when he'd seen too much, lost men, and had to kill the enemy. 1Lt Paddock had experienced all three.

"I'm okay Herb. Do you feel that wind, it's getting colder isn't it?"

"Yes sir, yes it is."

"I was thinking of winter, it's not that far off. Up on the Hudson it gets pretty cold come October, I even saw snow in my second year at the Point. That was a cold winter. Any idea what it's like here?" The lieutenant raised a hand to halt the platoon. Another gesture and the men deployed into skirmish order, two squads up, another - Mike Peavey's 3rd - in reserve, just behind the command element.

"It's not as cold here as it is in the northeastern United States. At least that's what I've heard. Buddy of mine works for the division weatherman, they're predicting a colder than normal winter this year. So who knows?" SSgt Graves looked over the deployment of the platoon, some of the new kids were still semi-clueless as to what to do, but their sergeants and corporals chivvied them into position and pointed to where their sectors were for observation. Given a few months, these new boys would make fine infantry. But they didn't have a few months, a few weeks at most.

Pvt Charlie Gammell and his spotter, PFC Jackson Hebert were on a slight rise just outside the village. Gammell had been scanning the nearby treeline for any sign of the enemy. He saw nothing but the swaying pines, heard nothing but the moan of the wind. Without taking his eye from his scope he told Hebert, "It's clear Bear, I don't see anything."

"Got it." Hebert passed on the word to his squad leader, Sgt Jack Wilson, who signaled to Jenkins 2nd Squad, and the two squads moved off for the forest, with 3rd Squad in support about 50 yards back. "Of course, I don't expect to see any Krauts until we get into those f**king woods. Well, not see 'em but we'll hear them when they open up on us." Bear grumbled aloud.

Gammell just shook his head as the two men moved to their next position, Bear loved to worry. But the man did have a point.

The newest member of the squad, Stump Gentile, actually felt good to be back with the infantry. Months in hospital followed by a week at a replacement depot almost made him long for combat. He knew that that was a crazy thought, but he felt like he belonged here. He'd survived a lot, he felt sure he was going to make it. But he didn't want to take any unnecessary chances. He'd seen guys make that mistake and pay the price.

"Hey Hank, move to your right a bit, keep your interval. Also, keep your head up buddy, stay low. And for crying out loud, don't lose sight of J.L.!"

J.L., PFC Jack Leonard, was to Pvt Hank Cambridge's right. He had been awfully nervous lately and Gentile had noticed it. The kid seemed stretched to the breaking point, Gentile had taken on the job of keeping an eye on the kid. He didn't seem to have any friends in the platoon and that worried Gentile.

Two well-concealed German infantrymen were just inside the treeline, unseen by Gammell through his rifle scope, watching the Amis advancing out of the small village. At least a full platoon, no doubt the rest of their company was nearby. The German sergeant knew that at best he had maybe ten men further back on the line who knew what they were doing, the other thirty or so were former Luftwaffe men. If they even fired their weapons in the general direction of the enemy he would count himself lucky.

He was about ready to move back to the trench line when he noticed that the Americans had stopped, like they were waiting for something.

1Lt Paddock looked at his watch, the platoon was set, waiting for the artillery they had been promised. Sure enough at precisely the right time he heard the whistle of artillery rounds overhead. Mere seconds later, he saw the flashes of detonating explosives dimly through the trees ahead, followed by the roar and crump of the explosions. If the captain had guessed right, the best spot for the Germans to set up ahead of them was getting pounded.

It was no more than a shallow gully in the forest, but it provided cover for the 42 men of the 246th Volksgrenadier Division who had been detailed to cover this sector of the front. The Amis had been patrolling aggressively as of late and it was thought that this was a good spot to hit the Amis when they came back this way.

Three MG 42s were positioned to cover the approaches through the trees, one was positioned so that it swept the entire front of the position. There weren't many veterans in this platoon, but the platoon leader, a lieutenant newly promoted from the ranks had those veterans in key positions along the line. He hoped that they could at least keep the former Luftwaffe men on the line and firing their weapons.

The lieutenant was waiting for his platoon sergeant to report back in the event the Amis made a move from the village perhaps 400 meters to their front. He was studying his map when his radio operator asked him, "Herr Leutnant, what's that noise?"

The former sergeant had heard the sound before, perhaps it just didn't register immediately due to a lack of sleep and not having had a decent meal in over three days. Before his conscious mind could react, the first 105 mm shell burst over the left flank of his position, up in the trees about ten meters overhead, spraying the machine gun position directly below with hot steel and shattered pine.

Those men were out of action immediately, the gunner transfixed by a wood splinter the size of a man's forearm, his assistant badly wounded by steel fragments from the shell. Of the three rifleman in support, only one was still capable of action. The other two were either dead or dying.

One group of infantrymen attempted to pull back out of the gully and were caught in the open by a shell which had managed to miss all of the trees nearby. It exploded when it hit the ground, vaporizing the two men nearest the explosion, killing two more ten meters away from the epicenter of the blast via fragmentation, and yet another man some fifteen meters away was dead due to concussive shock.

Only ten shells fell on the position, but that was enough. Of the 40 men in the gully, 27 were killed outright and all but two of the remainder were badly wounded. The lieutenant and his radioman were physically unhurt but both were deaf and in a state of shock from the extreme violence which had rained down all around them.

When the last echo of the short barrage ended, Paddock signaled his men to advance. They were braced for any German reaction, some of the men were moving forward hunched as a man might move into a strong wind with heavy rain. As if that might actually protect them from a hail of German bullets.

But that hail never came.

Just inside the treeline a German voice called out, "Don't shoot, we surrender!"

Cpl Melvin Katz ordered them in his excellent Viennese-accented German to throw down their weapons and their helmets then come out into the open with their hands raised as high as they could possibly raise them.

In short order, two men, both wearing greatcoats, came out from the treeline. Both looked dirty and disheveled, the results of months in retreat and the past few weeks desperately trying to build up their defenses along this stretch of the line.

Both were seasoned veterans, one an Oberfeldwebel, which Cat told the lieutenant was the equivalent of a Master Sergeant. The two men were searched, Cat noted that both wore the ribbon of the Eastern Medal, what the Germans sarcastically referred to as the 'Frozen Meat Medal,' a decoration awarded to those men of the Wehrmacht who had survived the first winter in Russia. Both also wore the ribbon of the Iron Cross 2nd Class, the Oberfeldwebel also wore the 1st Class medal on his tunic.

"Lieutenant, these two guys aren't your run of the mill draftee. They're hard core professionals." Briefly, in German, Cat asked the Oberfeldwebel why they were surrendering.

"The war is lost, we haven't eaten in days, haven't been paid in months. Why die now? You people will be in Berlin by Christmas."

All of that had been said in German, which Cpl Katz translated for the lieutenant. After which, Paddock said, "Romano, Jones, take these two back to the company CP, then hustle your asses right back here."

Those two men fixed their bayonets and promptly herded the two Germans back into the village. The two Germans looked relieved on the one hand, and resigned on the other. Relieved that they might live another day, resigned to the fact that they had committed treason by surrendering. But neither man cared anymore. Not one whit...

The men of 2nd Platoon, Charlie Company, 1st Battalion of the 26th Infantry Regiment found the ruins of the German platoon which had been positioned to stop Charlie Company. There were multiple dead and enough wounded to keep Doc Milbury busy until the remainder of the company came up.

PFC Stump Gentile and PFC Jack Leonard found the body of the German lieutenant nearby. They had found him when they heard a man sobbing uncontrollably. The lieutenant, demoralized and in shock, looking at the wreck of his first command, had pulled out his Walther pistol and bid his radio operator farewell, then shot himself. His blood and bits of brain matter had spattered all over the young grenadier. Who immediately began to cry.

"Hey L.T., Corporal Katz, c'mere!" Gentile shouted.

Paddock was brought up short by the sight of the dead German lieutenant, his eyes still open, staring at nothing, his pistol still in his hand. "What the Hell?" Was all he managed to say.

The men were all surprised when Cat knelt next to the sobbing German placed one hand on the man's shoulder and said, "Ruhe dich aus, Junge, dein Krieg ist vorbei, wir werden dich jetzt beschützen.¹"

More surprising still was when the young German turned to Cat, threw his arms around the corporal and continued to sob.

Katz patted the man on the back and said, over and over, "Beruhige dich jetzt, weine nicht.²"

Eventually Cat calmed the young German down and he let himself be led to the rear, turning back twice, still sobbing, to say, "Mein Gott, mein Gott, es tut mir leid, Herr Leutnant, es tut mir so leid.³" The man was inconsolable.

When Cat told the lieutenant what the man was saying, even SSgt Graves got a little misty eyed. Looking over the bodies of the dead Germans and those whom even now Doc Milbury was trying to keep alive (two of them had already died in spite of Doc's efforts), Graves said, "We're fighting kids, L.T., is this all the Krauts have left, a couple of veterans and a bunch of kids? Jesus Christ, this shit makes me sick." Graves spat on the forest floor when he had said his piece.

Paddock had seen a lot in his short four months at the front, he felt as if he had aged a hundred years, but they had a job to do, he turned to Graves and ordered, "Get the men on line and moving Herb, detail a couple of men to help Doc, but we've got to press on."


Soon the platoon was back in skirmish order and was moving again. Paddock consulted his map, there was a small stream perhaps 500 yards further on, they were to move to that position, dig in, and await further orders. "I need a drink," the lieutenant mumbled as he put his map away.

SSgt Graves said, "I'm buying L.T., as soon as this f**king war is over. As much as you can drink."

¹ Rest easy boy, your war is over, we will protect you now.
² Calm down now, don't cry.
³ My God, my God, I'm sorry lieutenant, I'm so sorry.


  1. I suspect the war is going to heat up for them very shortly. I’ve been reading this book on world war one in the absolute terror of artillery barrages. What an impersonal way to die.

    The book told of these for young recruits crying in the garage and then a shell hit the trench and bury them alive

    Wondering where they shell going through those trees how much resistance would it need to set the shell off? Just going through branches or hitting a tree trunk?

    Blame my insomnia for being number one commentor 😁

    1. Being on the receiving end of artillery is terrifying.

    2. Contact fuses will go off when striking something semi-hard, so not the little branches but stuff around an inch thick or more, maybe depending on the tree up to 2", but at that speed fuse goes off on outside of tree and shell explodes inside of tree, just in time to make huge splinters, like in the days of sail, except worse.

      The heavy tree coverage made the contact fuses act like proximity fuses (fuses set to go off at X distance from ground, the better to scour the surface clean of people...)

      As bad as what we did to the Germans with our artillery in the Hurtgens, they'll repay us back in the Ardennes. Woods and modern artillery are a deadly combination.

    3. And, once again, if I had saved pontificating before reading all the comments, everyone else below has answered the questions.

      Always over-eager, that's me!

    4. Beans #1 - Air bursts are horrible in their effect, add in trees and you have a real nightmare!

    5. Beans #2 - But we love your enthusiasm!

  2. “Crying in the garage?“ Barrage of course. With that I bid you all a good night

  3. William, I think the arty shells had both impact fuses and a proximity fuse that would burst in the air at a certain height.

    Nice episode, Sarge - getting the tension ratcheted up ... foreboding at this point ...

  4. Good fuze timing by the 105s. But wait two months, when the German advance during the Blge made SHEAF OK the release of VT fuses. Then there will be real carnage.

    1. Hitting the tree tops will set the fuse off, just not as precisely as the coming VT.

  5. That young GI liberated a wine bottle, he's happy there still something in it and the GI behind.... that a BAR? Ya, air-bursts in woods, metal AND wood shrapnel/splinters.

    1. The wine bottle (and the look on the GI's face) are what drew me to the picture. Sure looks like a B.A.R.

    2. PVT Winebottle is the assistant gunner for the BAR man behind him. Note the oversize pockets on his cartridge belt- each carrying two 20 round BAR mags, three pockets on each side, for total of 120 rounds.

      The soldier on the left is a souvenir hunter, with a captured German holster (and presumably with a pistol in it). Probably a P-38, but the Luger holsters aee almost identical. Perhaps our friends Stump or Jack?

      You described Herr Leutnant "had pulled out his Walther pistol" which may or may not be an accurate statement. The Walther designed Pistole 38 (P-38) was actually made by several makers, not just Walther, and most likely would have been called a "P-38" rather than "Walther." The Walther firm also made the excellent PP and PPK pistols which were used in limited numbers by the German military (more police than Wehrmacht) but quite popular and often privately obtained. (And, the PPK is James Bond approved!)
      John Blackshoe

    3. They put a Cutt's compensator on the BAR? I didn't know that....

    4. John - Great eye for detail John. As to the lieutenant's pistol, it was definitely a P38 manufactured by the Carl Walther Waffenfabrik. I mean, I put it in his holster, didn't I? But yes, these pistols were also manufactured by the Mauser Werke and the Spreewerk, but the design was from Walther so I tend to call it it the Walther P38. Said concern also designed the PPK of James Bond fame. Note that in the story none of the Germans called it a Walther, the narrator (who would be me) called it that. Odds are a soldier would have just referred to it as "the lieutenant's pistol," rather than specify its model or make.

      In NATO I referred to my weapon as my rifle, not my Heckler & Koch G3, though that would have been accurate. FWIW, we also had to qualify with the pistol, said pistol being the Walther P1, same design as the P38 though with an aluminum, rather than steel, frame. My instructor (a German soldier) was surprised that I knew how to field strip said pistol. When I told him that I owned its grandfather, he got a chuckle from that.

    5. STxAR - Yes, they did, particularly in the Marines (Cutts had been a Marine, which I didn't know).

    6. Yes, they had Cutts compensators on some Thompsons.
      The thing on the muzzle of the BAR is a "flash hider and bipod bearing." Basically a round tube attached the the end of the barrel with a ridge around it. The front 2-3" are strictly useful as a flash hider (although not tremendously effective). The rear part provides a place for the bipod to attach. It was common for troops to remove the bipods- heavy, awkward for carrying (even though very useful for aimed fire prone). Just the sort of thing that might be done with a weapon that was "off the books or excess to allowance."
      There was a much later variation (1950s?) where the flash hider part was made with longitudinal prongs instead of tubing type shape.
      John Blackshoe

  6. In the picture is the one soldier carrying a P38?

    1. Good eye Pete! Yes that looks like the standard issue P-38 holster with magazine pouch. Got one right here that's somewhat more worn, but they look identical otherwise. And yeah, this one's WWII issue. Pistol's got the swastika armorers' markings on it.

    2. Pete - I'm no expert but the holsters for the P08 and the P38 are similar. The P08 (Luger) was a prized souvenir, but hey, if I saw a P38 "lying around" I'd take it. I have a P38 from 1944, holster and all, said holster looks different from the one in the photo, I "took" it for $150 back in 1973, included 50 rounds of ammo as well. Try making that deal these days!

      But yeah, good eye.

    3. Patrick - My holster is slightly different, it has the spare magazine pouch on the outside of the holster. The pistol I mention above had the spare magazine as well when I bought it. Long story as to how I got it, a very sweet pistol.

    4. Sarge, Pa got this one from a German officer that surrendered to him, in 1944, I believe. Spare mag on the front of the holster, just like the one in the pic. He had four originally. One got "loaned", and never returned, to an uncle I think. Another got taken by a Catholic priest for some reason. The other got traded for a chainsaw, some time in the 70s.
      Pa got drafted for a one year hitch, some time shortly before we entered the war, and was in North Africa, as well as the European theater. Only serious physical injury he took was a baseball to the nose. The psychological was another story, though. He'd get a few Budweisers and some brandy in him, and start telling stories. Some funnier than shit, others...extremely disturbing. I had a good start on my PTSD before I ever even got into the Corps, just didn't really know it yet.

    5. As you know, war changes you. You're never the same afterwards, some handle it better than others. Two uncles who saw infantry combat in WWII, they'd talk about the funny bits, nothing else...

    6. But the talking is very important. It's why the VFW and American Legion were started, places for those who've seen things to talk or just be around others who've seen things.

      I wonder if the latest round of vets is being encouraged to join vet social clubs?

    7. I have a relative, back from Afghanistan, who still is troubled.

      Saw his best friend blown up by an IED

    8. Beans - Being around others who've been there and done that is important. Almost no one talks about it, if they do, means they weren't there.

      Not sure what you mean by encouraged to join, who would be doing that encouraging? The Air Force was damned near completely quiet on what come's after. That was something you had to figure out on your own. Once you signed out of your last unit, you were damned near a non-person. Hopefully things have changed in the last 20 years, but from what my kids have mentioned, nothing has really changed. I understand it, but...

    9. Afghanistan is nasty. Always has been nasty, even when Alexander's boys went through a couple of thousand years ago.

  7. Cousin Gene was supposed to have offed a Japanese officer in Guadacanal with a liberated pistol. He found some cavalry spurs that the ex-officer didn't need anymore on his boots. My aunt had those, man I lusted after them as a kid. Don't know whatever happened to them.

    Gene escorted uncle Steve home on his last trip. That dress blue uniform was amazing. Heck, even in his khakis he was sharper than a razor. He had colored stuff on his chest, and lots of stripes on his sleeve. Every inch a Marine.

    I can't imagine the odor of that forest floor. Innards have a smell, explosives and gun powder, blood, fear.... and the comforting smell of the decaying matter and dirt.... all swirling in the air as you come up on the carnage...

    Odors really stay with me. Just a quick whif of certain perfumes can ramp me up to eleventy-seven post haste. Black powder smoke and old blood bring back some really disturbing pictures in my mind....

    Again, I was right there.... Good writing OAFS...

    1. It's the smells which trigger so many memories. And, ahem, certain reactions...

      Thanks STxAR.

  8. In the photo, the first guy with the kraut pistol and a Garand, love how his ammo belt is carried in a non-official way. His face is the look of someone bone-weary.

    Good story. Trenches only provide cover from side-to-side. The vets should have had the platoon make overhead cover. Something to remember later on for the Americans, if they got the lesson. Overhead cover is verrry important. At the least, it keeps the snow off, better keeps the rain off, still better keeps the shell splinters off. Most don't have the time to make it stand up to a direct hit.

    Close forests are weird. You get the feeling that some ancient evil is out there just yanking someone away, or, well, like in the movie "Predator" where an unseen force is just picking people off. Sounds travel weird, muzzle flashes are muted, so someone being shot gives no indication where the shooter is, unless someone sees the actual hit and has their wits around them.

    Wet, cold, in a forest that eats people. What a f$#%ing nightmare.

    Keep it going.

    1. These Germans were in a hasty defensive position, just using the terrain as it was. Given more time you can prepare better defenses.

      Overhead cover is important.

    2. I have dad's old 1950's era combat engineer manual. It has very specific details for making a hard roof that will trigger mortar rounds. "Bursting layer?" The roof was over 2 feet thick when done right... I can't imagine it would be safe for 105's though.

    3. Not to mention the sensation of having a mortar round going off right overhead!

    4. You may be free of splinters only to get hit by the concussion.

    5. I read some thing at the time of princess Diana‘s death about sudden concussion. You can see people in auto accidents that look perfectly fine but dead. And the concussion, or sudden stop, knocks so many capillaries lose you bleed 1000 cuts internally

    6. Beans - Concussion has left many dead with not a mark on 'em.

    7. William - Not to mention that your brain tends to slosh around and slam into your skull from the inside.

  9. Sarge, in the movie The Last Days of Hitler there is a scene - just as the Russians and American are entering Berlin - of a young Hitler's youth - a girl - shooting herself in the head at the prospect of either what comes after or failure. That has always stuck with me, rather horribly.

    1. Reports of rapes and murders of Germans by the Red Army as they went through Prussia and Silesia were well known in Berlin. That girl faced a very terrifying future.

    2. It was the same in Vienna with all of the rapes. I read a history book that it had the tacit approval of Stalin. It must have as none were punished.

      And I’m reading my book on world war one and in one section six soldiers executed for rape.

      Stalin’s policy and East Prissia was horrible. It was a deliberate campaign to denude the land of Germans through a program of absolute terror

      Read of a woman who was nailed to the side of a barn

      Hundreds of thousands fled to the coast to places where a hastily assembled German armada could take them away

      Read about the Willhelm Gustloff

      Stalin‘s program succeeded. 600 years of German history gone in Prussia.

    3. East Prussia was erased and became part of the Soviet Union and Poland, the northern part still belongs to Russia. The nearest point in Russia to the eastern border of the Kaliningrad Oblast (Kaliningrad used to be Königsberg, the capital of East Prussia) lies some 300 miles away.

      Look up the Volga Germans, Stalin got rid of them as well. Of course, the Nazis had similar plans for all the Slavs, kill the ones they didn't need and reduce the rest to serfdom on German farms. All on Russian soil of course. Both sides were nasty bastards in the East.

    4. I've read that a common mindset among German women in those dark days was "better a russian on your belly than a bomb on your head." Humans -- those who choose to survive anyway -- are amazingly resilient.

  10. Hey AFSarge;

    Excellent Post:) as to the comment above mine, the Germans referred to the Soviet monuments in Berlin as "The tomb of the unknown Rapist", The Soviets paid the Germans back for what they did to "Motherland", I had read that it was encouraged by Stalin, don't know if it was true, but it was "Urra Stalin". Well anyway, as far as overhead cover, it was very important for any fighting position where artillery was a factor and the trenches were zigzag to the exploding shells if it hit a trench the shrapnel wouldn't flash down a line and zap a bunch of them. With Jungen Soldaten I had seen the pictures, and I remembered a book and they were talking about the sacrifice of "The seed corn", as the last gasp of a civilization.

    1. Hitler stated that if he and the Nazis failed, there should be no future for Germany as they had failed. He wanted to tear it all down around him. He was a monster.

  11. (Don McCollor)..And there was the Doc doing the best he could for his former enemies..

  12. Audie Murphy described the horror of arty in general and tree bursts in particular in chillinly graphic detail.

    As alwasy I'm really enjoying this ride Sarge!


Just be polite... that's all I ask. (For Buck)
Can't be nice, go somewhere else...

NOTE: Comments on posts over 5 days old go into moderation, automatically.