Saturday, October 17, 2020

The Kids


The men were as ready as he could make them. Hauptmann Jürgen von Lüttwitz, commander of the 5th Company, walked down the line with the commander of his 1st Platoon, Unteroffizier Manfred Sauer. Though it was not unheard of for an NCO to lead a platoon, it was odd that all three of von Lüttwitz's platoons were led by NCOs. Sauer was fairly junior, having only been promoted in mid-September, but he had proved his leadership ability more than once. Von Lüttwitz felt lucky to have him.

"Any questions Manfred?"

"No sir. I wish I had a full platoon to hold this position, I suppose two squads will have to do. Any thing you wish to tell the men sir?" Sauer asked, hoping that his captain would say something. Most of his men weren't much more than school boys. With the exception of Opa Köhler, newly promoted to Gefreiter, the average age of his platoon was eighteen and a half.

"Certainly Unteroffizier Sauer, I'd be honored."

Turning to face the line of expectant faces, von Lüttwitz spoke, "Men, things aren't going to be easy out here. The enemy is well-supplied, resourceful, and is highly motivated. The Americans are not the soft mongrels that they told you about in the Hitler Youth. They are tough and they are good fighters. They chased my ass halfway across France last summer." The men all had a laugh at that. "I'm not asking you to fight for the Fatherland, nor for the Führer, you should be fighting for the man next to you. You watch his back and he'll watch yours. Remember your training, listen to your sergeants, and most important of all... Gefreiter Köhler?"

"Keep your f**king heads down!"

"Yes, indeed. First Platoon! Take up your positions!"

The men were well entrenched, with good overhead cover in the form of logs scavenged from the forest. Sauer and von Lüttwitz had been very careful with the platoon's main assets, two MG 42 machine guns. The riflemen both supported and provided covering fire for the machine gun teams should they have to maneuver. Multiple positions along the trench line had been prepared for the guns, which would be used depended on the Americans.

Köhler was watching two of the younger boys, Wilhelm Stolz and Fritz Pfeiffer. Both were only seventeen, while Pfeiffer was a big farm boy, Stolz was slight and wore spectacles. The two were fast friends and had been since they had gone through training. They had had the luck to be assigned to the same platoon, Sauer had no problem assigning them to Obergefreiter Manfred von Horn's 1st Squad. Von Horn was only 19 himself but was an adept combat soldier. He wore the ribbon of the Iron Cross 2nd Class and had been recommended for the 1st Class as well. Regiment seemed to be taking their sweet time approving that award.

"When the Amis come out of those trees down there, they will be moving low and quick from tree to tree. They will use every fold in the ground to protect themselves and every trick in the book to get up here and kill you. Mark your targets, make every round count. If you kill enough of them, they'll stop. But I'll tell you boys, there are a lot of them!"

Stolz looked nervously at Köhler, who winked at the lad, then began to fill his pipe. Pfeiffer saw the gesture, chuckled then nudged his buddy and said, "You worry too much Willi. Do as the corporal says and we'll be fine. We'll all be heroes!"

"Right," Köhler grumbled, "we'll all be f**king heroes."

At that moment, the word came down the line, "Here they come!"

At first they were merely vague shapes, moving in the shadows under the trees, fleeting glimpses of olive drab clad men, moving up the slope towards the German lines.

A ripping burst from an MG 42 did nothing more than reveal the gun's position. Von Horn screamed at his team to hold their fire, "Wait for a clear target!"

Willi Stolz saw the winking of small lights down the slope, before he could ask what they were, Opa Köhler had pressed his head down into the dirt. "Keep your head down boy or the Amis will blow it off!"

Stolz heard the zip and crack of bullets overhead, he could hear them smack into the trees behind them and into the logs over their heads. He also heard the strangled gasp of one of his squad mates as an American bullet found a human target.

"There, fire!" Von Horn saw a man with a radio next to another man who was talking into the radio's handset. Tracer fire from his MG 42 walked towards those two men and cut through them. Almost immediately the deeper chatter of an American machine gun opened up, the incoming rounds spattering the 42 crew with dirt and wood chips.

"Move to your right lads, position two."

The gunner and his assistant moved low down the trench line to their alternate position, within seconds they were set up.

The firefight lasted nearly an hour. The Americans would try to maneuver only to be driven back by machine gun and rifle fire. Sauer saw one or two of the shadows fall, but were they hit or simply taking cover?

Grenadier Friedrich Engel from Unteroffizier Wolf Schneider's 2nd Squad was down, he had been hit just below the rim of his helmet on the left side of his head. The wound was bloody as Hell but non-life threatening, Engel would have a very bad headache for the next few hours.

Grenadier Jürgen Peltz, also of 2nd Squad wasn't so lucky, he had been hit by a lucky shot through his firing aperture. Hit in the throat, the bullet had deflected down into his chest. Peter Krause the Sanitäter, had tried desperately to keep young Jürgen alive, but he had died within minutes of being hit.

As the firing died away, the only thing left was the smell of cordite, the disturbed floor of the forest, and the wood chips torn from the overhead cover and the nearby pines. There were other smells on both sides, the coppery smell of blood, and the smell of voided bowels.

Sauer studied the area through his field glasses, no American soldier had gotten within twenty meters of his position. One man had made it that close, he was a big blond soldier who was now laying in front of Opa Köhler's position. The man was doubled up, clasping his hands to his belly, crying pitifully for his mother.

Sauer heard the shout "Sanitäter!" from Köhler, then watched in amazement as Köhler and Pfeiffer scrambled from the trench, dashed out to the wounded American, grabbed him by the arms and dragged him back into the trench.

Krause got there as quick as he could, when he got there the wounded man was staring at him in terror. All he saw was the helmet and Krause's uniform, the enemy.

"Easy boy, rest easy. He's going to help you." Opa Köhler had spoken in a low gentle voice, a voice Pfeiffer recognized from his days helping his father. His Papa had talked to injured farm animals in just such a tone, it seemed to calm them. It did in this case too.

Though Köhler's English was heavily accented, the American boy seemed to understand him, he tried to relax as Krause attempted to patch him up. But the American's wounds were too severe and he died shortly after Krause's arrival.

"Shit!" Krause muttered as he threw the soiled bandages out of the trench. On one knee he leaned over the dead American, closed his eyes, then whispered a silent prayer. Krause was a good Lutheran, he prayed often and he prayed hard. He was a healer, he hated seeing people hurt and he died a little inside each time he couldn't save a wounded man, friend or enemy.

"You did your best Peter." Köhler said. He had known men like Krause from the first war. One of them, from his village, had gone on to be a doctor after the war. A very good doctor. But he had been taken away in late 1942, just before Köhler had received his draft notice. For the man from his village had been Jewish. A decorated veteran and a fine doctor and man, but the Nazis didn't care. Köhler had been outraged at the injustice of the thing when he had heard of it.

"Thanks Opa. I know I can't save them all, but it hurts to see them die."

Unteroffizier Sauer came along the trench line, he had had two men take Peltz's body to the rear. Engel was sent back to see the surgeon, his wound seemed to be okay, it was not bleeding at the moment. But Sauer wanted him looked at and Krause had agreed.

"If that dressing comes off, you might start bleeding again. If that happens during a firefight, I might not be able to get to you. Let the doctor check you, then come back if he says it's all right."

When Sauer got to Köhler's position and saw the dead American, he looked at Köhler, "Trying to save the world Opa?"

"Yes, Manfred, one man at a time. We failed this one."

"He was an enemy, he was trying to kill us. So we killed him. It's war Opa. It's war."

Köhler looked down at the dead boy, for he truly wasn't really old enough to be a man yet. Probably never even kissed a girl, Köhler thought. Looking back up at his platoon leader with a questioning look, he asked "Well?"

Sauer looked at Pfeiffer and Fuchs, "Take the dead Ami back to the rear with Peltz. The man at least deserves a decent burial."

"Thanks Manfred."

"I swear Opa, you can't fix the world. The world is f**ked, we're f**ked, I doubt the Allies will let any of us live after this is over."

"So do we quit, Herr Unteroffizier?" Köhler meant that as an insult, Sauer took it that way, but he understood.

"No, Grenadier Köhler, we fight, we fight until we die, or our leaders tell us to stop. We have no other choices."

Köhler shook his head, sighed and said, "I know Manfred, sorry, but I've seen this before, it ends badly you know?"

Sauer nodded his head, "I know Opa, I know."


  1. So is this the front? Or... I have the sense that Hauptmann von Luttwitz decided this is the place, this is the time, as a sort of rear guard cum advance post. Also, relative to Lt Paddock's position, where is the CP?

    My dad went straight from high school ROTC to combat. He was not quite 18. His first contact with the enemy featured hand-to-hand combat. I shudder every time I think of that. I feel it in my bones when I read this episode.

    It was not unheard of for combatants to medically treat the other side. As one may expect, this occurred in the Civil War, but it also occurred on Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima - of all places. Certainly there would be many examples of such gallantry across Europe during WWI and WWII.

  2. Hey AFSarge;

    When I saw the picture first thing I though of dang, change the uniform a bit and those kids could be my boy scout troop. I know at the end the Germans were using the HJ to "beef" up the ranks of the Wehrmache, the"Seed cord" as it were, Very good post.

    1. Their soldiers got younger as the war went on. Older too with the creation of the Volksturm.

  3. Always seemed one of the most insane aspects of (modern) warfare. Do everything you can to kill them, then turn completely humanitarian, and do everything you can to try to save their lives. Don't get me wrong, I empathize entirely, but that doesn't mean it's not still nuts!

    1. It does seem counter-intuitive doesn't it?

    2. The Mongols, Apaches, any of the true warrior societies would think we're complete idiots for trying to save the lives of our enemies. Once word gets around, it makes it easier to surrender to us though, knowing they'll be fed, and have their wounds properly tended. Booth good and bad aspects to it, depending on how truly evil the enemy is, and whether they'll stab you in the back with a fork from the mess, first chance they get.

    3. There is that. But, for better or worse, it's who we are.

      Even Achilles mourned Hector.

  4. It is what it is. Dangit. Hope Opa and Sauer make it, both of them are very likable people.

    And it's a good thing that Sauer had the body moved. A lot of misunderstanding could have occurred if the Amis forced the line and found a GI dead in the trenches with the Germans. Hot heads in the heat of battle sometimes, well often, don't think very well.

    I like the contrast between the previous MG position, which was laid out badly, with improper fields-of-fire by the supporting infantry, and Hauptmann Lüttwitz's position. Yes, I know, a big difference between even a depleted company and a platoon or less, but even a properly sited and run squad or double-squad can be an effective stop in woods.

    Of course, I'm wondering why the Americans didn't stop and work around rather than just bulling forward. Bad leadership or bad terrain?

    1. The German line, while thin, is continuous at this point in time. Aachen has yet to fall and the attacks in the Hürtgenwald at this point are simply to prevent the Germans from thinning that line to send troops to defend Aachen. In a short time, after Aachen falls, the fight in the Hürtgenwald gets bigger as we're trying to push through to the Roer dams. That fight will last until the early hours of 16 December.

      Short answer, bad terrain.

    2. Thanks for the explanation. Makes sense. Reading this, you get the feeling of these people being alone, far away from others. The Forest makes it seem so, but it isn't true.

    3. It's easy to feel alone in the woods.

  5. Well we know some are going to die on both sides. Some people now that we met them will sadden us.

    On the German side I’m rooting for Sauer and Opa to make it

    On the American side? Of course I hope everyone makes it but that’s not usually how it goes

    1. I'm not sure myself from day to day what's going to happen. I start writing and then I see where it goes.

  6. Ops is a like able character. Hoping he makes it.

    1. He made it through the First World War...

      I hope so too.

  7. It always ends badly. When war comes civilization takes two steps back after making a shaky single step forward. And because of the way reality works, neither the soldier nor the nation has any real choice in the matter once the killing and dying begin. As awful as the reality is, there is always hope. Hope always remains.

    One of the things I personally did badly in my military service was setting my personal "save them all" bar impossibly high. It took a long time for me to come to terms with that. It was my own fault, and I knew intellectually I was treading a dangerous path, but I also knew emotionally that if I worked hard enough and tried hard enough I could save them all. I was right about the path being dangerous and wrong about my superhuman abilities. On balance it was worth the cost though, and the bonus is that every once in awhile I could do some good work and make a difference.

    Great stuff as always Sarge. Thanks.

    1. Set the bar too low and you're bound to lose more. I don't know how you guys did it. Buddy of mine was a corpsman with the Marines for most of his career. He carries a heavy burden from some of the things he's seen. He won't talk about it but things slip out.

      My hat has always been off to the medics and the corpsmen.


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