Friday, October 2, 2020

Youth versus Experience

(Source)

Hauptmann von Lüttwitz studied the faces of his platoon leaders. He remembered when platoons were led by officers, now they were led by experienced veterans, many of them NCOs. He had heard that on the Eastern Front there were entire divisions led by majors and lieutenant colonels. Of course, those divisions were divisions in name only, many of them were the strength of weak battalions.

The 275th Infantry Division was in the process of being rebuilt, many of the new recruits came from the Luftwaffe, men experienced in the ways of the military but completely ignorant of ground combat. In other words, they knew how to put their uniforms on, who to salute, and the necessity of obeying orders. Leave them on their own and they were no better than a civilian when the bullets started to fly.

Someone up the chain of command had decided that giving the men some combat experience might be a good idea, rather a novelty at this stage of the war von Lüttwitz thought. That evening his company would board a train and head south to the Aachen area. The Amis were fighting to seize that city, the Wehrmacht was fighting hard to prevent them from doing so.

At first von Lüttwitz had wanted to protest when the 5th Company had been selected. Then he realized that it would be a good experience for the new men. Let them experience war on a fairly quiet section of the front, which the forests to the south of Aachen were at the moment. His biggest worry was the trip, going by rail was fraught with danger, at least they would be traveling at night. Shouldn't be that bad, he thought.

Unteroffizier Manfred Sauer, Feldwebel Dieter Pohl, and Oberfeldwebel Klaus-Peter Keller all waited for von Lüttwitz to gather his thoughts. All three men were experienced soldiers, Sauer and Pohl had been with the division since its formation as the 223rd Infantry Division in 1939. They had fought in France and in Russia, where the old 223rd had been destroyed then reconstituted in 1943 in France as the 275th. Which had been torn to red ruin in the Falaise Cauldron. An experience which von Lüttwitz, Sauer, and Pohl still had nightmares about.

Oberfeldwebel Keller had been wounded in Russia and spent nearly a year convalescing until rejoining the division in early 1944. Wounded again in Normandy he had missed Falaise, a fact for which he was eternally grateful. His men called him der Kugelmagnet, the bullet magnet, not to his face of course, but he was aware of the nickname. One wag in the 4th Company had joked that if Keller kept getting hit, the Wehrmacht would start making him buy his own uniforms!

Finally von Lüttwitz spoke, "All right men, here's the plan, we load the men on a troop train in," the captain glanced at his watch, "three hours. We'll be transported to Kreuzau in Kreis Düren, where we'll detrain and then proceed on foot to wherever the local commander needs us. We'll be temporarily attached to the 246th Volksgrenadier Division. The idea is to 'blood' the company over the space of a week. Patrolling will be the big thing. Questions?"

"What are the Amis doing in that sector Herr Hauptmann?" Unteroffizier Sauer asked with a thoughtful look on his face. "They chased us over half of France, it would be nice to hurt them."

"From what battalion has learned, the Amis south of Aachen are simply holding their positions, but there have been reports of some very aggressive patrolling, particularly by their 1st Infantry Division. It might be possible to ambush a patrol, give our men some experience and let them taste combat for the first time. Hurting the enemy at the same time, of course." The latter bit was said with a nod in Sauer's direction.

"How about enemy Panzers?" Oberfeldwebel Keller had an extreme dislike of tanks. He had been nearly killed in Russia after being wounded when an enemy T-34 had tried to crush him in the trench where he lay bleeding.

"Their 3rd Armored Division is north of where we shall be, I know the 1st has an attached tank battalion, but in the forest..." The captain was interrupted by his 2nd Platoon leader, Feldwebel Pohl.

"In the forest their Panzers have to worry more about us then we about them. It's very different from the steppe country we saw in Russia." Pohl paused, then said, "I have heard that the enemy Shermans burn very easily, I am not worried."

"Then you're a fool Dieter." Sauer had seen American Shermans tear German Panzer IVs to shreds at close range. "Remember my old comrade, for every bullet in your ammo pouches, the Amis have ten Shermans."

"Battalion says that the Amis are short of fuel, it's why they have been relatively static over the past month. Most of their supplies went to the Tommies' failed attempt to seize Arnheim¹. Fat lot of good it did them." Oberfeldwebel Keller had friends throughout the division. When he had arrived von Lüttwitz had asked him if there was anyone he didn't know.

"Yes, I've seen that report as well. I don't know what to make of it, in our little trip across France I don't think I ever saw an American walking. Seems they have a vehicle for every soldier. A lack of fuel would plague them, more than us I suppose." Hauptmann von Lüttwitz looked at his watch and told the men, "Right then, get the men ready."


By some miracle it had started raining nearly the instant their train began to move. While the younger soldiers groused about it, the veterans told them that the Amis couldn't fly in this weather, if they couldn't fly, they couldn't kill Germans. Trains are very tempting targets, but with night and the rain, the veterans felt safer.

The line was clear all the way to Kreuzau, another benefit of the rain was that it kept the Allies from bombing the rail line and all the stations and yards along the way. They had been held up briefly by a train carrying wounded away from the front, but they arrived at their destination with ample time to move to their assembly areas while it was still dark.

The men arrived wet and tired, but they arrived. They passed through the small village of Grosshau at first light, the place seemed deserted. On the other side of that town, there was a path leading into the forest. Some of the younger men grumbled at the idea of continuing the march, when were they going to eat, one of the younger men complained.

"When we've dug in and have placed our weapons, then we can eat. Provided you have anything remaining in your bread bag. I saw you youngsters eating your rations on the train. Do you think there will be food waiting for you in the forest?" Opa Köhler chided them. While he wasn't thrilled with the nickname, it had stuck. At least the veterans used it respectfully. Not so with the younger men. But they were kids, it didn't bother him.

At that some of the youngsters did look worried. Though they'd been told not to gobble up their iron rations, well, they were hungry. What did the Army expect anyway? As the company began it's march up the muddy trail, one of the younger men asked, "Does this forest have a name?"

Hauptmann von Lüttwitz nodded and answered, "Yes Junge, the Hürtgenwald."

(Source)

Many of the men marching up that trail would never see home again.




¹ The German name for the Dutch city of Arnhem.

32 comments:

  1. Bloody Hurtgen...
    just like Wilderness camapign of Civil War

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  2. It makes me wonder Sarge - and I think you are doing a wonderful job of portraying it - how the German army felt in 1944-1945. The sense of inevitable defeat seems to be creeping in as a leitmotif.

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    1. Many of the soldiers were starting to understand that retreating wasn't a sign of victory. Most of the generals knew they were defeated after Stalingrad. But they all kept fighting. Why? I'd like to think I would keep fighting to defend my country, so would most soldiers. Defeat may seem inevitable, but when do you quit?

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  3. Woods battles are... not fun. So many in the Civil War, especially in the South. The Battle of Lookout Mountain comes to mind. Fighting up a mountain, in dense woods, in the Smokies, in late November... You lose your unit cohesion, your sense of direction, Who's That? Union, Confederate, what? And the people shooting at you could be your friend or your foe, only accents and the peculiar differences between various guns being one of the few things that mark any difference.

    Never heard of this particular forest, but I met some WWII soldiers that absolutely hated the forests of eastern France and western Germany. Haunted woods indeed! Been fought over, in, around, under for since man came to that area.

    Brrrr... Chilling cold as the fall fogs settle in, dripping wet everywhere, blanketing sounds...

    Time for some hot tea! Yeah, and sunlight!

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    1. You've never heard of the Hürtgen Forest?? It's stunned I am.

      Fighting in the woods is absolutely no fun at all.

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    2. Emphasis on the Pacific has left me woefully under-informed as to specific battles in Europe. I get the gist, get the feel, but many of the little things kind of aren't there.

      As to the forest, I think the first four letters spell out what everyone is going to feel in a week or two (in the story, that is.)

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    3. My bad, my Great-Uncle John (last name Gammell. I also had an Uncle Charlie who also fought in the ETO in the infantry, guess where the character in the book got his name?) was wounded during the Battle of the Hürtgen Forest, I've actually visited the area and I just assumed that everyone knew about this battle. Also one of my German colleagues in NATO mentioned to me (after my weekend in the Hürtgenwald) that his father had been captured there, yes, his dad had been in the Wehrmacht.

      But yes, things are going to heat up in those woods right shortly.

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  4. Hey AFSarge;

    Even now those woods look forbidding.......The youngsters never learned not to eat their "iron Rations out of their bread bags." That was one of the difference between their gear and our "C-Rations". I'm not sure what was better or worse. I do know from my experience that the British rations were better than our MRE's or at least different, LOL Never really had a chance to try German rations the entire time I was over there, too many Cases of MRE's laying around. Very good post :)

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    1. Try to keep a teenager from eating...

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    2. By late '44, a lot of German rations were rather, um, not 'world class' anymore. Like sawdust extenders in the sausages.

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    3. Ersatz tobacco, ersatz coffee, ersatz damn-near-everything. Not all that palatable.

      Pretty good article about German rations here.

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  5. For an unknown battle in the woods look up the Battle of Cloyd's Mountain during the Civil War. A small battle in May 1864 it was one of the bloodiest battles in terms of percentage of casualties in the entire war.It was fought on steep hill sides in the woods and the guns set the woods on fire including deep accumulated leaves on the ground. Many of the wounded burned to death where they lay. My great-grandfather was in the 11th West Virginia infantry in that battle. Fortunately he lived to fight in the Shenandoah valley are on the run from Petersburg to Appomattox.

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    1. 11th West Virginia, 3rd Brigade under Sickel. I just read up on that fight, brutal! Union suffered 10% casualties, Confederates suffered 23%. Burning brush, troops getting pinned down, brutal.

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    2. My mothers' family is from WV, and I spent a lot of time back there. Interesting state historically - I heard that Lincoln wanted the B & O railroad lines hence the split. But even then, like KY, half the counties were for the Union; half for the Confederacy. I take it your great-grandfather fought for the Union?

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    3. 11th WV was a Union regiment.

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    4. A little interesting family note. He enlisted in I believe September 1862 and was almost immediately captured at the battle of Burning Springs. There were only 2 oil fields in the United States at that time and he was captured before they were even issued uniforms and rifles. But the note worthy aspect is that this was the 1st battle in history where the military objective was an oil field. It wouldn't be the last. Both sides thought the war wouldn't last very long and so everyone that was captured Was released As a paroled prisoner. We will let you go if you promise not to do this again! Of course they went right back To fighting. Regarding the split there were Very few slaves in western Virginia and there really wasn't much interest in fighting to preserve slavery.But even more importantly there was, even before the war, a real sense of division between eastern Virginia with it's planter class and sense of Elite Entitlement and the poor dirt farmers scraping a living From the hills and the hollers in the west.They never really liked each other.The western part of Virginia were Scotch-Irish from the highlands not English colonialists and planters of the Tidewater. I think they still don't like each other.

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    5. Very good description of the animosity between the planter class making big bucks on the plantations and those having to scrape a living from the dirt. And when have the Scots-Irish ever gotten along with the English?

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    6. Larry - interesting about West Virginia. Yes, if Virginia even acknowledges it, it is treated as the "red-haired step child". I was surprised at how old some of the towns were. Until about 15 years ago, my aunt and uncle lived in a log house that they modernized, built in 1802. You want an interesting drive, take Rt 60 down the Ohio River from Cincinnati to Huntington WV - passing towns from the 1700s. The Ohio River was full of settlers even then. Even a few miles from my uncle's old farm is the town of Kenova - for KENtuckyOhioVirginia.

      And I never thought about it but yes, 2 separate peoples.

      And if it comes to a fight, don't mess with the Scots-Irish.

      The Hatfield-McCoy feud was just 25 or so miles from the Farm.

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    7. Beautiful country out there.

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    8. Yes, they were two separate peoples. The separation was probably inevitable even without the catalyst of the civil war.Now take the two separate people's argument from eastern Virginia and western Virginia and apply that to California and tell me what you see.

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  6. I had forgotten the fact that the Nazis had scoured the Luftwaffe to fill the army ranks. But it makes sense once their planes were all shot down

    What was that “bread bag“? Was that elongated can you see so many soldiers wearing?

    From what I’ve read of that forest it was a hell on earth with flaming trees crashing all around it by the artillery

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    1. The elongated can carried the gasmask and filter. The bread bag was made of canvas and was hung off the back of the belt. A good picture of one is here. Weren't a lot of flaming trees in the Hürtgen, it was too wet. The big problem from artillery was that the shells would burst in the trees, spraying shrapnel from the shell and wood splinters on those below. Very nasty.

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    2. Nite that buts of shrapnel are often called splinters. In the Hurtgenwald, the wood splinters were a force multiplier for the already nasty German arty. Must have been bloody awful.

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    3. “Note that bits” - can’t type on my phone keyboard!

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    4. Tom #1 - Whenever you have things going boom and bits of wood lying about, you get lots of nasty splinters. Think of the age of sail, warships blasting cannon shot into wooden hulls. Nasty.

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    5. Tom #2 - Don't feel too bad, I often can't type on my full size computer keyboard!

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