Sunday, December 27, 2020

Cold is the Night


Major Jürgen von Lüttwitz was stunned by the scale of the losses suffered by the attacking force he had sent towards Berg. Although one tank had been abandoned when the men had had to withdraw, the other three were intact. Of the twenty men in the tank platoon only one had been hurt. The platoon commander, Leutnant Rudolf Klein, had been shot down by a sniper while he stood in the hatch of his tank. He was badly injured but the medics said he would probably survive. He and the other wounded were headed to the rear in one of the Kampfgruppe's trucks, of which they now had a number of spares.

However, Grenadierkompanie Koch had started the campaign with 119 men and now only 48 of those men remained. They had started the attack towards Berg with 93 men, 45 had been lost, including the company commander, Hauptmann Hans Koch, who had not returned. Only five wounded men had come back, the others were unaccounted for, the American artillery had driven the men back before they could recover their casualties.

"What can you tell me about what happened, Oberfeldwebel?" Von Lüttwitz was speaking with the senior surviving man from Grenadierkompanie Koch, Oberfeldwebel Otto Meyer , who commanded the unit's 2nd Platoon, of whom only 12 men remained.

"We were advancing up the road in rain and intermittent snow squalls, visibility was very bad. From my position near the middle of the column we couldn't see very far ahead. Apparently Leutnant Klein was hit by a sniper not long after the head of the column advanced into the open. From there things went from bad to worse. Another panzer attempted to deploy off the road and hit a mine. As our infantry began to deploy they were hit by fairly accurate machine gun and rifle fire. There were mines in that field as well, but we took very few casualties from those. That's when the Ami artillery opened up. It was Hell out there Sir..."

Sgt. Greg Jenkins joined Cpl. Judd Maxwell and his machine gun team from his squad's position to Maxwell's left. Privates Brian Chapman and Steve Pacheco were back with the team after their adventure with the bazooka they had taken forward. While they hadn't killed any tanks, they had drawn some unwanted attention from the tanks' supporting infantry.

"Corp, I don't ever want to do that again, damned Krauts seemed kinda pissed off." Pacheco was still shaking from the experience. It had been a close call.

Jenkins spoke up, "Well, you guys distracted them long enough so that we could hose them with the .3o cal and with rifle fire. I think Charlie and Bear nailed a couple of officers as well in all the confusion."

Cpl. Maxwell agreed, "They were so interested in chasing you guys off, they forgot all about us."

Chapman had to ask, "So Sarge, what was up with our arty? The rounds were going off in the air, almost like they knew where to explode."

"Yeah, I'll have to ask the L.T., those cannon cockers sure fused their shots just right today. Lotsa dead and dying Krauts out there tonight." Jenkins said.

"Poor bastards." Chapman added.

As the clouds cleared, and the temperature plummeted, there were indeed many men out in the open, many were past caring, their unseeing eyes staring into the night sky. A number of the Germans were wounded, they had been abandoned by their own unit when the artillery had turned the farmer's field into a killing ground.

Feldwebel Reinhart Brandt had been in command of the Grenadierkompanie's Rifle Platoon, thirty-three men, of whom only 17 had made it off the field. Brandt had multiple wounds in both legs and his left arm was shattered. He could see at least three of his men lying nearby, none of whom were moving, he assumed that they were dead.

They were.

Brandt moaned involuntarily, his legs were bothering him terribly, the cold was intense, he wondered where the medics were. While the Kampfgruppe had no trained medics assigned, they did have a number of stretcher bearers who had rudimentary training in first aid, enough to keep a man alive until they could be evacuated to the rear.

He didn't know that his own company's Krankenträger,¹ Grenadier Wolfgang Schulte, wasn't very far away. He had gone to ground when the artillery had started. Somehow he had survived and when he saw the company retreating, he had decided to stay and help the wounded as best he could.

He was working his way in the dark, there was enough snow on the ground and enough starlight that he could see, after a fashion. The best he could do was try to stop the bleeding and comfort the wounded men until they could be evacuated. Probably in the morning he thought.

Little did he know that Kampfgruppe von Lüttwitz had already advanced as far as they ever would in the Ardennes, movement would be to the east from now on. Back to Germany.

1st Lt. Paddock had come up in the early hours of Christmas Day, perhaps an hour before daybreak. There had been a report of movement out in the field in front of 2nd Platoon's position, the men didn't want to fire and give away their positions, so Paddock went up to see for himself.

"I see a couple of guys moving around, they appear to be checking the men on the ground. If I had to guess, I'd bet that the Krauts have their medics out, trying to get the wounded away." Paddock tucked his field glasses away. "Leave 'em be. Once the sun comes up, Cap'n Palminteri says to expect air support. The flyboys are keen to get up in the air and kill Germans after being grounded for so long.

Sgt. Jenkins was watching the Germans as well, when he lowered his field glasses, he said, "I almost feel sorry for those poor bastards. Almost..."

Schulte had just checked yet another corpse, nothing he could have done could save the man, most of his head was missing. He heard a man moaning, cautiously he approached. He recognized one of the unit's NCOs.

"Feldwebel Brandt, where are you injured? It's me, Schulte."

"Ah, lad, glad you didn't run away. Both legs and my left arm are torn up. I can't move."

Schulte tried to slide a hand underneath Brandt, it was no use, the sergeant was frozen to the turf, probably with his own blood. So he moved down to the man's feet and pressed his fingers into the leather of the man's boots, over his toes.

"Can you wiggle your toes Feldwebel?"

"I am, can you feel that?"

Schulte couldn't feel any movement in the man's feet. Sliding his hands up further, he got his fingers inside Brandt's trousers, the man's legs felt like ice. Spinal cord injury Schulte figured, he had assisted a field surgeon in his old unit and had some experience with those kinds of injuries. Brandt was probably paralyzed from the waist down.

"I'll be back, Herr Feldwebel. I need to see if there are more survivors." Schulte moved off to another man, he could see the man was trying to sit upright.

He moved off to assist that wounded man, he seemed to be doing alright, other than not having a right foot that is.

Grenadier Wilhelm Möller spoke as Schulte checked his leg, "Maybe I can get a desk job now, eh Schulte?"

"Nice tourniquet, whoever tied this off probably saved your life. Well, the cold helped too, helped stop the bleeding."

"When I got hit, my friend Vollrath helped me. Tied off the wound and was going to drag me back when he was hit. That's him right there." Möller pointed towards a snow-dusted body nearby.

As Schulte started to move in that direction, Möller said, "Don't bother, I saw him get hit, bullet right through his head. Blew his helmet off and a big chunk of his brains. He died without a peep."

Schulte noticed that it was starting to get light out now. His instinct was to flee, the Amis would no doubt start shooting if they saw anyone moving out here, but his job was to help the wounded.

So he stayed.

Though Kampfgruppe (mot) von Lüttwitz had managed to get most of their running vehicles under cover, the tracks they left in the snow and mud would be obvious to an airborne attacker.

"Manfred, have the men stay away from the vehicles, if the Ami Jabos come, the vehicles will attract them like buzzards to a corpse." Major von Lüttwitz cast another glance at the sky, he could see contrails high up, no doubt bombers heading east, to Germany.

The morning was still hazy but the rising sun would burn that off soon enough. Von Lüttwitz swore that he could hear aircraft engines, the sound was unmistakable. Though they were back in the trees, he remembered all too well the devastation foretold by that throbbing roar. He had seen it in France, no doubt he would see it this day as well.

The flight of four P-47 Thunderbolts flew over the copse of trees to the southeast of Berg, the flight lead's wingman was studying the ground ahead as they flew over the snow-covered terrain. The morning haze was lifting and he had to squint at the brightness of the snow cover.

"Lead, you seeing that at your nine o'clock?"

"I got 'em Three, tank tracks? I think I also saw a truck just inside the tree line."

"Yup, that's what I see."

"Red Flight, head north, let's go back around."

The crew of the sole remaining SdKfz 10/5 anti-aircraft vehicle watched the four silvery aircraft turn to the north. They had lost one vehicle late the day before when it had thrown a track crossing a farm field. The third vehicle had fallen into a stream when the bridge over that stream had collapsed under the vehicle's weight. A closer examination revealed that the bridge's support structure had been deliberately damaged by someone. Probably American engineers the detachment commander had figured.

Oberfeldwebel Bruno Kraus told his men, "Get ready boys, those Jabos will be coming back around. We'll hit them as they go into their attack run."

Kraus didn't know that the feed mechanism on his gun had frozen during the night. With luck, they might get off one, maybe two rounds before the gun jammed.

Kraus told the crew, "Here they come, get ready to feed more rounds when I need 'em."

As Kanonier Maximilian Mayer was bringing another magazine of 2cm ammunition back to the gun platform, he looked up in time to see glittering shapes fall from underneath the attacking aircraft. He thought that it looked rather pretty. Then he remembered, it was Christmas morning.

The lead flyer saw a flash over to his right front, a tracer from a 2cm cannon flashed over his canopy, then nothing. He had a glimpse of a Flak crew scrambling over their vehicle. "Hmm, maybe they're out of ammo." he thought as he and his flight returned to base to rearm.

The tumbling canisters were napalm-filled, when they hit the trees they burst into flame, raining burning jellied gasoline on the men and vehicles below.

Kampfgruppe von Lüttwitz had just lost a number of their remaining trucks and a number of halftracks as well. The Kampfgruppe was no longer motorized, most of the men would be walking back to Germany.

The skies were clear, the Allied air forces were up in force, anything out in the open which bore German markings was doomed.

¹ Stretcher bearer

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  1. Mother nature is fickle, isn't she? What help she gave to the Germans initially in the form of fog and clouds literally evaporated when the sun came out. I'm sitting here at the beach looking over a calm blue ocean with a bright, clear, cloudless Carolina blue sky that lifts my spirits in the cold morning air. I can only imagine how seeing the clouds and fog retreat and the sun beam down must have felt to the grunts in Belgium seventy six years ago.

    1. I'm sitting on a glassed-in porch in the woods outside Annapolis, a nice sunny day. Cold and crisp, but lovely.

      Can't imagine trying to hide from the sky on a day like this.

  2. I only found out that we used napalm in Europe recently. I always assumed it was a Pacific thing. And those artillery fuses. Amazing devices. They may be one trick ponies, but that is one heck of a trick.

    Well, 4.x days of 2020 so we still have time for more weirdness. I mean, what the actual heck?? I fully expect a knock at the door and: "Trouble at the mill! One of the crossbeams has gone out of skew on treadle!"

    1. One Hell of a trick though.

      All years are weird, this one just had a higher concentration of weirdness.

  3. Ninth Air Force had a number of fighter-bomber squadrons, wonder how many missions were flown on Christmas Day 1944? No CAS here today, one to two inches's winter (sigh).

    1. We've been CAVU for a couple of days now! Cold and clear, great CAS weather.

  4. VT fuses, the introduction of Napalm and the previous two weeks' weather so cold the ground was frozen and covered in melted snow turned to ice, so no foxholes, trenches, scrapings, anything to provide protection.

    The Germans were screwed.

    And the Bolts, forward deployed in France and out of England, were ready to do a mighty reaping. Which they did. I seem to remember reading somewhere that going back into the Bulge, American GIs said just about everything that could have possibly looked like a vehicle was full of bullet holes or blown up or burnt or a combination of the three.

    The lull caused by bad weather allowed the Allies, especially the Americans, to build up huge stores of ordnance and ammunition, and, again, from what I remember reading, the fly-boys were determined to burn it all up as quickly as they could. Napalm, a variety of bombs, rockets, lots and lots of .50cal in all it's various versions.

    Same with the cannon cockers. They got a chance to build up lots of rounds and were very angry for having to move so many times during the retreat. Lots of anger and fear translated into lots of motivation to use the new toys as much as possible on anything wearing grey.

    Not a fun time for anyone, but especially not for the Germans, especially after evidence of several atrocities were made known to the Americans.

    And the Forest, tired of grinding through frozen food, feasted on warm food, sometimes burning its greedy roots and branches.

  5. As to weather, 2 days of 24-25 degree at night, 50ish during the day weather. Last night we got the apartment down to 54 degrees by leaving the front door open and running the circulating fans. Yay, snuggle time. Made better by me finding one of my old arming caps (a simple cap of padded cloth) from my fighting days to cover my bald head and big ears.)

    The ground was icy and crunchy and very very pretty.

    Much better than Christmas Eve, when a heck of a wind and rain storm came through, dropping 5 inches in two hours and knocking out power 2 hours before dinner time. So I hearkened back to my wife's Jewish period and went and secured Chinese for dinner. And, of course, power came back on right as I was serving our Eve feast. Ah, well. I'll put up with that for some freezing weather (as long as the roads and trees don't freeze too much and knock the power out again.)

    1. We were fortunate not to lose power in that storm. The wind was fierce and the rain was pounding on the roof and walls of Chez Nuke et Tuttle. A good night to stay indoors!

  6. Sigh. Your writing makes me need another subject to read up on. Dang it Sarge, I need to sleep sometime...

    1. Sorry TB, but thanks as well!

      Means I'm doing my job.

    2. I know you are bundling these and putting it in a book right?

  7. It didn't go entirely our way. I see there are two elements of P-47s, but the P-38s have someone missing.

  8. I think I meant two sections, two planes are an element, two elements make up a section, four sections a squadron. I know that is right for NAVAIR, in WWII, at least.

    1. I just look for four aircraft, two at least. I'll let the pilots argue this one.

  9. I remember reading some time ago that among American Veterans - German too, I would suspect - part of their recurring post-war nightmares was seeing the blood in the snow with the extreme cold.

    These Brandts are sure unlucky aren't they;-)

    My father probably saved his life by being injured in a jump at Ft Benning - trying to help a friend out he fell the wrong way with the static line catching his leg. He was in the hospital for 6 months.

    His unit went to Sicily with 80% causalities. Which means if he hadn't been injured I wouldn't be here.

    A minor typo I assume:

    The flight of four P-47 Thunderbolts flew over the copse of trees

    1. I don't see the typo, what am I missing?

    2. I **thought** "copes" s/b "tops" but in looking it up, "copes" is a small group of trees. You pulled a "Lex" on me! :-)


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