Sunday, December 20, 2020

Encounter on a Country Road

99th Infantry Division vehicles withdrawing through Wirtzfeld en route to Elsenborn.
On the right an M-10 Tank Destroyer covers the withdrawal.

U.S. Army Photo

Obergefreiter Dieter Becker's Kettenkrad clattered to a halt in front of Kampfgruppe (mot) von Lüttwitz's temporary command post in a small house on what the locals had told them was called the Enkelberger Mühle, the Enkelberger Mill Road. The CP was roughly a kilometer to the south-southeast of Krinkelt and a kilometer and a half north of Mürringen.

"Herr Major, Obergefreiter Becker with Panzerspähkompanie Köhler! I've been up the road to Wirtzfeld, per your orders, and the town is deserted, the Amis withdrew from that position a day ago, according to the Waffen SS men still in that village."

"The SS are still there? I thought they were driving on Krinkelt-Rocherath?" Hauptmann Hermann Krüger, commanding 1.Kompanie, said while looking at Major von Lüttwitz.

"Begging the Hauptmann's pardon, Sir, the men I encountered were with an SS field hospital. They claim that they had driven the Amis from Krinkelt-Rocherath." Becker explained.

Von Lüttwitz studied the map laid out on the table in the small kitchen. "That explains why the Amis withdrew from Wirtzfeld," which a passing messenger had told them, "they're withdrawing to this ridge, here." The location the Major pointed at was labeled 'der Hinterberg' on his map, the Americans called it Elsenborn Ridge, though von Lüttwitz couldn't have known that.

"Oberleutnant Köhler!" von Lüttwitz called out to the group sitting in the front room. In a moment the young Oberleutnant commanding his reconnaissance element came into the kitchen.

"Herr Major?"

"Send two of your Luchs vehicles and a Kettenkrad to the north of Wirtzfeld, then turn to the west on this road here. Find out what's between us and this town," he circled it on the map, "Berg. Note that there is this lake which will cover your left flank. Be quick but be cautious, tell your men not to engage but to observe. No matter what they find, send the Kettenkrad to this position." von Lüttwitz also circled that on the map.


Von Lüttwitz thought for a moment then turned to the Spieß, "Klaus-Peter, how many Kettenkräder do we have on strength?"

Hauptfeldwebel Keller consulted his notebook, then looked up, "Eight, Sir. Four with Oberleutnant Köhler's unit, two with the Panzerkompanie and two with the Sturmgeschützkompanie. All are here with us."

"Hornbach!" Fortunately Leutnant Günther Hornbach, commanding the StuGs was standing in the doorway to the adjoining room.

"I'll send a Kettenkrad immediately, Sir. What's the message?" Hornbach had anticipated the Major's command.

"Have Koch rendezvous with us here," he pointed at the position he had circled moments before, "quickly Hornbach, quickly!"

Von Lüttwitz looked for his panzer commander, he too was standing in the doorway to the front room. "Hauptmann Sauer, I want your tanks up front when we move out, infantry support will be provided by Hauptmann Krüger's 1.Kompanie."

Looking at Krüger and Sauer, von Lüttwitz said, "A good mix of panzers and infantry in their halftracks in support. Klar?"

"Jawohl Herr Major!" Both captains answered simultaneously.

"Reconnaissance and messengers, go! Everyone else be ready to move within the hour! Let's move gentlemen!"


"I dunno L.T., but I'm getting tired of marching in this crap." As he said that Sgt. Woodrow Sherman lifted both hands to the sky to indicate the falling mix of rain and snow.

"Well Woody, if it wasn't for you, we wouldn't know just how miserable we had it." S/Sgt. Stephen Hernandez shook his head and laughed.

"This is the infantry pal, sometimes we gotta walk in this slop, we can't always expect a ride." Hernandez continued. "Only you would bitch about riding for two miles, then having to walk a half mile."

"Gee Top, what, the M3s couldn't have gone another half mile?" Sherman asked.

"Knock it off Sgt. Sherman, you know damn well that battalion needed those M3s to get reinforcements down to 3rd Platoon, they're getting hit by SS tanks and infantry. Listen, can you hear it? That's the sound of tank guns coming from across the lake. So zip it Sarge, I don't wanna hear another f**king word!" 1st Lt. Nate Paddock had had enough of Sherman's whining. Yeah, he didn't like walking in this shit either, but it was a call Cpt. Palminteri was paid to make. Paddock liked to think he would have done the same.

3rd Platoon was in the shit, so far they weren't. Paddock turned to Hernandez, "Let's double time, Top. I'm getting a bad feeling about this!"


Unteroffizier Oskar Schwarz ordered his driver to halt, something was going on up the road. Engineers? He wasn't sure, but there were men moving around the road. He would bet his life savings, such as they were, that those men were planting mines. He had quite forgotten his orders to not engage the enemy.

"Franz, hold up here. I can see Amis up ahead, looks like they're mining the road. Send Wolff back to the Kampfgruppe, tell them we've made contact with American infantry supported by engineers!"

Unteroffizier Franz Zimmermann, commanding Panzer 116 had hastily written down what Schwartz in Panzer 115 had radioed to him, unfortunately he had left out the 'infantry' part. He handed the scribbled note to Reiter¹ Harald Wolff and told him to report to the Major.

As Wolff clattered off on his Kettenkrad, Zimmermann said to his crew, "Damned Americans are all over the place! Let's move up and take those guys under fire, discourage them from planting their damned mines!"

View from Corporal Santos' position.

Cpl. Hilario Santos was covering two of his men planting the few mines they had, a couple of anti-personnel mines and one anti-tank mine which the engineers had given them, "Just in case."

Santos thought he saw something moving up the road. He squinted real hard then barked, "Genovese, Moreno, get off the road, it's one of those Kraut recon tanks."

The three men scrambled into the brush and began to work their way back to the platoon's main line.

"Did you arm those mines?" Santos asked.

"You betcha Sarge, those Krauts will have a surprise if they come up that road."

As Reiter Heinz Groß gingerly moved the vehicle up to get around the bend, Schwartz was standing by on the 2cm cannon. Those Ami engineers were in for a surprise!

What the...

"Driver, halt." The Americans which he had glimpsed through the sparse trees earlier had vanished. Maybe they weren't engineers, Schwartz thought. Then he radioed Zimmermann in 116, "We're moving up, the Amis are gone. Maybe a patrol?"

Panzer 115 rolled down the road, Schwartz was concentrating on looking for the enemy and wasn't watching the road ahead. Nor was Groß. If they had been they might have seen the anti-tank mine which had been hastily placed.

But they did not.

Santos heard the sharp bang from where they had been, he grinned at his two men, "Sounds like we just ruined someone's day."

Schwartz was shaking his head, trying to clear it. The mine had exploded under the left side track, it had torn the Hell out of that track and had killed his driver. He looked down at Groß and shook his head, the kid was slumped to one side with his head resting against the instrument panel. The coppery smell of blood and the stench of high-explosive filled his nostrils.

"Okay, Theo, Karl, dismount and see what the damage looks like, I'll cover you." He said this as he pulled out the crew's MP 40 and then stood up on the back deck of the tank. He had to do that so that Gefreiter Theodor Sauer, his loader, could climb out through the commander's hatch.

He could see that Reiter Karl Weber looked at bit groggy as he levered himself out of his hatch at the right front of the tank. No doubt due to the proximity of the explosion which had killed Groß. As Karl began to swing his legs over the side of the tank, Schwartz yelled out, "Wait!"

But he was too late, Karl jumped to the ground and triggered an anti-personnel mine which blew his right foot off.

"Scheiße! Theo, check for mines on the right side of the tank, then climb down and help Karl. I think, oh no..."

Cpl. Santos had returned with the squad's B.A.R. team and the squad's grenadier, Pvt. Derek Carson. They saw the enemy tank, its right track off, and two of its crew helping a third man onto the road. The guy being carried looked as if his foot was gone.

"Hank, kill those guys, Derek, give me a grenade on top of those guys, we can't let them back in the tank." Santos didn't see the other tank nosing around the corner behind the damaged vehicle.

As soon as he could see around 115, Unteroffizier Franz Zimmermann opened up with his 2cm cannon. There were five Americans that he could see. His first burst toppled three of them. The other two rolled off into the ditch. At the same time, an American rifle grenade detonated nearly on top of 115. He couldn't see 115's crew at the moment.

There, that's Schwartz, and he's dragging somebody!

"Rainer, jump out and help Oskar. The Amis would be crazy to pop their heads up!"

The Americans weren't crazy. Reiter Rainer Arnold, 116's radioman, helped Oskar Schwartz pull a badly wounded Karl Weber onto the engine deck of 116. As he did so, he heard Unteroffizier Schwarz order Zimmermann to head back to the Kampfgruppe. They weren't supposed to get into a fight, but they had.

They had to abandon 115 and they left the bodies of Reiter Heinz Groß and Gefreiter Theodor Sauer where they had fallen. Groß in his driver's seat and Sauer on the road where American light machine gun fire had cut him down. Schwartz had multiple superficial wounds from the rifle grenade explosion. Weber had lost his foot.

It was a somber ride back to the Kampfgruppe.

Privates Henry McTeague, Rick McCarthy, and Derek Carson lay dead in the road where the Kraut cannon had killed them. Pfc. Harry Mitchell was holding a badly wounded Cpl. Hilario Santos in his arms. One look had convinced him that the corporal was a dead man, he just hadn't died yet.

"Hang on Hilario, you're gonna be okay, just hang in there pal." Mitchell looked again at Santos' belly, it was torn up and Santos was bleeding badly. He doubted whether the battalion surgeon could have saved him.

"Man, it hurts Harry, it hurts something bad. Did we get the tank, did we kill it?" Santos asked, he was delirious from the pain

"Yeah buddy, we killed one tank and drove another one off."

"There were two of 'em?" Santos quivered, then muttered, "Oh Deus, isso dói...²"

Mitchell was holding tightly onto his friend, they had grown up together in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Though Mitchell had an Anglo family name, from his Dad, he was half Portuguese, his mother's maiden name was Amaral. He knew that he would have to write to Hilario's mom and let her know what had happened to her youngest son.

"Geez, Harry, is it snowing again? It's getting awfully cold." Santos muttered, he was losing a lot of blood, he was slipping away and there was nothing Mitchell could do.

"Yeah buddy, it's snowing, hang on, just hang on, you're gonna be okay, buddy. Hang on Hilario." Mitchell was nearly sobbing.

"Mamãe onde você está?" were the last words Cpl. Hilario Santos, United States Army, uttered as he died, "Mama, where are you?"

The rest of the squad found Mitchell cradling his dead friend's body, sobbing uncontrollably. He would be evacuated to the battalion aid station that evening as a non-combat casualty. Though he would be back, he was never the same again.

¹ Cavalry/reconnaissance term for a private.
² Portuguese, "Oh God, it hurts..."

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  1. As usual Sarge you put us right there and humanize both the Germans and the Americans.

    One small possible correction:

    Theodor Sauer where they had fell.

    had fallen?

    I read that one of the big strengths of the American military is the strength of the NCO corps.

    I have a feeling the German army was similar?

    1. Yup, just thoughts mid-sentence, therefore I gooned it up. Fixed that.

      The strength of any military is its NCO corps. The officers order something get done, it's the sergeants who make sure that it gets done.

    2. Since the Centurions and Decurions of Roman Empire, NCOs were backbone of the force.
      Germans had very good quality leadership on tactical level.

  2. in the german army, nco run and get everything done. officers make the choice of where and how.but the nco's get the job done
    or so it was back in the 1970's.

  3. Four dead Americans vs two dead Germans, one immobilized tank but more important another delay for the Germans. Mines! Hate mines.....:(

    1. Delaying action, trading space- AND BODIES - for time.
      Bloody business for both sides.

  4. Hey Old AFSarge;

    Another "meeting engagement" as they call it in the tactics books, but they miss the cost of war, makes it antiseptic, and it ain't. Another awesome post.

    1. I suppose they have to categorize things, it's what we humans do.

      Too bad we can't unlearn war.

  5. Echoing the above Sarge. Historical accounts often (really, almost never) capture the human side of the war. You convey what I can only assume is the actual terror and confusion of an encounter.

    1. My belief is that if the human side of war was shown in all its gory horror, we'd have less of it. Politicians who clamored for war and conquest would be torn to pieces if people saw the truth.

  6. A somber way to spend the Feast of Saint Dominic of Silo, known for healing and rebuilding. Sad. A nothing encounter which starts a series of cascading errors, mistakes, casualties and blunders, the very opposite of St. Dominic (of Silos.)

    Bleh. Cold, wet, muddy, foggy, with an ancient Forest out to feast on the Solstice. What fun, not.

    And the forest continues to feed in dribs and drabs, an appetizer here, a plate there... but it feasts...

  7. Another well written installment.
    Minor correction to caption for opening photo. The M10 covering the retreat is on the right, not the left.

    1. D'oh! I'm thinking American left flank, but it's on the right of the photo.

      Dang! Fixed that.

      Thanks JB!

  8. Truly "another well written installment". That 16th Infantry site has some great photos! Signal Corps photographers? Whoever they were, did a great job.
    Boat Guy

    1. The photographers in the military, then and now, are truly talented people.

  9. Manfred is NOT going to be happy about this! Losing his nephew, because someone couldn't follow orders.

    1. Theodor is, was, Manfred's cousin. But no, he is not going to be happy.


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