Sunday, October 18, 2020

The Meat Grinder


Captain Alphonse Josephson, commanding Charlie Company, was walking back to the company area with his executive officer, 1Lt Gus Chambers, his company first sergeant 1Sgt Morton Saeger, and his radioman Cpl Jacob Winters. The captain was not in a good mood, he had seen the casualty report from Able Company's fiasco of an assault up the ridge the men were starting to call the meat grinder.

"One hundred seventy-three men went up there yesterday, a hundred and twelve are still on their feet today. Bert Johnson, a damned good man, and his radioman were shot to pieces by Kraut MG fire. Right at the beginning of the attack."

1Sgt Saeger started to speak, then thought better of it. Captain Josephson noticed and said, "Speak up Mort, what's on your mind?"

"Sir, Able Company's plan was pure shit. I know their first sergeant, Judd McKay, he didn't have a very high opinion of Captain Johnson's tactical ability. Said the man always went straight in, no finesse at all."

"Mort, be careful, Bert was a friend..."

"I know that captain, but he got himself, and a bunch of his men, killed yesterday. Going straight up that f**king hill was a bad idea. I know we think that the Krauts are all worn out, bunch of young boys and old men, but they can still pull a trigger. They're well dug in up there, they still have a lot of fight in 'em." Saeger was furious and it showed.

"Did 1Sgt McKay make it?" 1Lt Chambers asked.

"No sir, he did not. He was hit while trying to rally 2nd platoon after 2Lt Jack Williams was killed. Those boys f**king fell apart when their lieutenant was killed, he was popular with his men, they'd follow him anywhere, yesterday they did." Saeger looked off into the forest, wondering if they'd manage, someday, to recover the bodies of the men lost on that ridge.

"Yup, 2nd Platoon got their teeth kicked in yesterday. Fifty percent casualties, twelve dead and a whole slew of wounded." The captain paused for a minute, then bellowed, "F**K!" His outburst was swallowed up by the forest, hardly carrying beyond the small group.

The others all looked at each other but kept silent. They all knew that they had their work cut out for them. They would be going up that same ridge tomorrow. This time in two company strength. Essentially, what was left of the battalion would make the attempt.

1Lt Miles Hawkins was waiting at Josephson's CP when they got back. He was the commander of Baker Company, he was accompanied by his executive officer, 1Lt James Seagrave, and his first sergeant 1Sgt Abe Mendelsohn.

"Miles, so I guess you've already heard the 'good' news?"

"Yeah Tex, we figured we'd get with you, see how you want to go about this. I'm guessing hey-diddle-diddle, straight up the middle is not a viable option."

Josephson shook his head, "Nope, I'd prefer to survive the war with as many of my men as possible. McKay should have known better."

"We just were over at battalion, I'm pretty sure the major is going to get the ax for what happened yesterday. Regiment, so my sources tell me, are not happy with Major Christiansen." Hawkins lowered his voice when he let that bit of news slip.

"Would those 'sources' include your brother-in-law?" 1Lt Chambers asked.

"Why yes, yes they would. I don't think the major will last the rest of the day." With that, Hawkins looked directly at Captain Josephson. "Unless they bring someone in from outside, with McKay's death, you're the senior officer, should they decide to can Christiansen."

"Wonderful, just what I need. But that's a problem for another day. Right now we need to work out how we're going to pull this off."

The plan was for the mortar teams from both companies to bombard the enemy entrenchments for a solid thirty minutes. There was tree cover over the enemy position, but the Baker Company Weapons Platoon leader, 2Lt Maurice Vance, had found a good open area to set up in, so they could fire with few restrictions. Getting the rounds to detonate lower than the tree tops wasn't really considered a problem. Vance, and Charlie Company's Weapons Platoon commander 2Lt Herman Jacobsen, figured that most of the mortar rounds would get through the trees.

After the thirty minutes of high explosive, the mortars would begin firing smoke. After the first few rounds went off, the men would step off. They would have machine gun teams in support to each flank, hoping to be able to fire until the troops were close in, with all of both company's grenadiers lobbing in rifle grenades at will. Two men from each squad were detailed to carry extra grenades for the grenadiers.

Platoon commanders were to lead from the front, radiomen close by to radio in requests for fire support from the mortar sections of their respective companies. If all went according to plan, Josephson and Hawkins figured that they had a better than even chance of pulling this off, with fewer casualties than the previous assault.

One modification to the plan was made when 1Lt Paddock of Charlie Company's 2nd Platoon, was briefing his men. His platoon sergeant, Sgt Stephen Hernandez made the suggestion to have the sniper teams from both companies go in early.

"These guys are really good at using cover, I know our guys, Gammell and Bear, are up to it. Have those guys sneak in as far as they can, set up and then wait. Once the action starts, they might be able to disrupt the Kraut defenses by killing their officers and NCOs." Hernandez was familiar with the ground and indicated a couple of places on the lieutenant's map where a sniper team would do the most damage.

1Lt Paddock liked it, when he briefed his captain, Josephson liked it too, 1Lt Hawkins had only one thing to say, "Damn, I wish I had thought of that. I've got two pretty good sniper teams, Tex?"

"Paddock's guys are really good, I've got my own sniper team at company level. Four teams should be enough, it'll give the Krauts one more thing to worry about. Nate, tell your guys, Gammell and Hebert, right? Tell them what time we plan to start the mortar barrage. Think they might fire a round or two in the Krauts direction just before that starts? Make 'em wonder what the Hell is going on?"

"Sir, with all due respect, I'd wait until after the HE barrage. They might start poking their heads up, looking for the assault, might be more profitable that way."

Josephson nodded, "Good idea Nate. Miles?"

"I like it, Tex. Tomorrow morning then?"

"Yup. Get your men ready, and if you're the praying type..."

"Amen to that." Paddock said.

At 0400 the morning of the assault, the word came down from regiment that Captain Alphonse Jeffrey Josephson was to take acting command of the 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry. Major Edward (NMI) Christiansen had been relieved of command the previous evening by the regiment's commander. Josephson's executive officer would temporarily take over Charlie Company.

Regiment's message had said nothing about the pending assault.

"Damn it!" was Josephson's reaction upon being awakened with the news. But all that could wait for later.

If there was a later.


  1. it is as if WW2 soldiers were time-travelling 20-odd years back into WW1...
    no air support, no tanks due to terrain, and even no arty more than few light mortars
    (though last one might be a blessing in disguise as no cratered moonscape to bog advance down)
    probably best use for mortars themselves could be smokescreen.
    advance under cover into assault range then storm enemy position with close-quarters advantages of Garands and BARs
    just my diletantte 2 cents of tactics

    1. I beg to differ, on the smokescreen. It seems to me an often mistaken assumption that it will be in the aggressors' advantage, more so than the defenders'. Certainly it depends on the direction of the wind, and whether there is precipitation. In my opinion, smoke should be held in reserve, and only be deployed at the moment when it is (relatively) assured to be in the best interest of the assault. There can often be advantages for the assaulting force to be able to see with relative clarity. If the defenders have to fall back, and they have not prepared trenches for that purpose, they can potentially be exposed to incoming fire, if the visibility of the aggressors has not been too obscured.

    2. Paweł - It was very close quarters in the Hürtgenwald, visibility was reduced by the forest itself and the weather made it worse.

    3. Patrick - I think the Captain wants to give his men the opportunity to get as close to the defenders as possible. Able Company suffered so badly because the Germans could see them coming. The idea here is HE to disrupt the defense, then smoke to blind them until the last possible moment. If Baker and Charlie Companies weren't fighting uphill in a forest they might forego the smoke, counting on the mortar barrage to keep the defenders' heads down. We shall see.

  2. Snipers was a damn good call! Having the guy next to you mysteriously evolve into a spray of blood and flesh is an intensely demoralizing event. Having the shooters wait til after the HE barrage is also a good plan, as it limits their exposure to counter sniping, by undisrupted forces. Far better to pick targets among a disoriented force, rather than one that has it's guard up, so to speak. Also, sniper fire would make them tuck under cover early, before the mortars start to come in. Better to have them still sitting around, taking their morning coffee. The one good thing about mortar fire, as opposed to artillery, is that you don't hear it coming until the last second. Arty comes whistling in, providing a second or two of advanced warning.

    1. most important advantage of mortar rounds is their trajectory. lob them straight from above into trenches - thats why they have returned to battlefields in ww1

    2. Patrick - Snipers can really mess with your morale, hit a few key people and now you have command and control problems. That's the idea, make the Germans pop up to see the assault, expose themselves, after the HE barrage ceases.

    3. Paweł - Mortars can reach into places other artillery has trouble with.

    4. And mortars give you more bang for your buck. A 120mm mortar is as or more powerful than a 155mm in explosiveness. Same with the US 60mm, it packs as good or more bang than a 75mm howitzer, definitely more than a 75mm or 76mm tank gun.

      That is, if the end-boom is all you're after.

      There is some advantage, sometimes, to a flatter shooting piece, like if you're trying to shoot HE into a bunker through the gun slit. Mortars don't do that.

    5. That's why both types have been around for awhile and will continue to be useful.

  3. Well blogger did it to me again. I’ll redo the comment after I get up out of bed.

  4. Ah, the old officer changup at the last minute. Sure to ensure a smooth assault the next day.

    And everything we all said was wrong with the first assault, you used. Interesting. Either we're on the same page as you or you're taking notes. Either way it works well. The first assault was ham-handed, and the RTO and officer should have been back farther in the trees to avoid being gunned down first off.

    Snipers forward... gee, what an unusual concept. Pretty much the American Fighting Way since before the Revolution, push harassing fire first and let the enemy walk into it.

    Good story.

    1. The first assault was poorly planned and badly executed. The company commander figured a quick push up the hill and the "young boys and old men" would all run away. He figured wrong.

      Josephson knows better.

  5. Murphy writes about a similar assault is the same place(ish) at the same time(ish). The Krauts countered mortars with mortars and one of the supporting machine gunners was hit, shrapnel neatly slicing off his foot. "There go my dancing days," Murphy has him saying.

    IIRC the uphill attack was indeed a meat grinder and Murph got shot in the backside, a wound he clearly believed saved his life by taking him out of combat for a couple of weeks. Later when he rejoins the company (as an officer now) he finds the men in a state of utter defeat. It's a haunting tale.

    Thanks for another great installment Sarge.

    1. Fighting in that kind of terrain is nasty. Throw in bad weather and you have a waking nightmare.

      Thanks Shaun.

  6. Even if all goes well, there will be casualties. No worse calamity than battle won, except for a lost one. (Wellington after Waterloo)
    And enemy can have some surprises of their own. Veterans of five years of fighting tend to pick up a few dirty tricks along the way...

    1. Good Wellington quote!

      Not sure how this will turn out.

  7. What I had mentioned before blogger wiped out my post was that this installment reminded me of what the author of this world war 1 book said about the head of the British expeditionary force, Douglas Haig.

    “He disparaged not only tanks and planes but even machine guns. A biographer called him a good general “for a man without genius“

    And one thing that really brought that out was his planning of, I believe, it the Somme.

    He started with a fearful barrage comprising of tens of thousands of guns. The sound was such that it even was heard a hundred miles away in Britain

    When it was over the British troops went over the top and right into a murderous hale of machine guns

    I forget how many tens of thousands were killed on that first day.

    What Haig didn’t know was that the Germans had a much more fortified trench system than the British.

    it’s easy to imagine that which we don’t know to be similar to what we do.

    But their trench system went far deeper

    The Germans simply sat out the barrage and then came up when it was over

    And the author of this book made the point that Haig could have at least stopped the barrage for 30 or 45 minutes, waiting for the Germans to come out, and then starting it again

    But he had no imagination, just as that captain who led his men straight up the middle into their own machine gun fire

    And as I am writing this I am thinking of that scene from saving Private Ryan, where the Ranger squad has to take out that German machine gun nest

    Came at them from all sides. Even then one of them had to die

    1. (Don McCollor)...[As I remember from] Arthur Guy Empey's book 'Over The Top" about an American in the WW1 British Army. His General "Pepper" believed that orders were orders and meant to be obeyed. When a unit lost a position, Old Pepper had a talk with the senior (surviving) officer. The officer would come out face red as a brick. By nightfall, what was LEFT of his unit would be back in their old position..

  8. Hey AFSarge;

    Hey Diddle straight up the middle went out during the civil war, and the Great war should have buried that theory for all time. There are many tools in the toolbox to help in the assault and Capt Johnson ignored the tactical realities for his perceptions and his company paid the price. Another excellent Post :)

    1. Not knowing what's in front of you leads to tragedy.

  9. American smoke, being WP generated, will also inflict casualties.

  10. You mentioned in the story about the mortars providing fire for about 30 minutes prior to kicking off the ground offensive. At this point in the war did the Americans have to worry about counter fire and would they have to move periodically to avoid incoming fire from the Germans?

    1. Standard practice to shoot and scoot. That being said, the Germans made good use of their own organic mortar units at the company level. I'm just not really sure how good the Germans would be at counter-battery in the woods. But it's something to consider.


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