Tuesday, February 2, 2021

The Crossroads, Part One


"Can you take a few more men on your vehicles, Obergefreiter Krausse? I'm afraid one of our trucks just gave up the ghost. The men can't get it started, no matter what they try." Major Jürgen von Lüttwitz was standing in the snow looking up at the commander of his attached Sturmgeschütz platoon.

"Do you want my guys to take a look at it Herr Major, won't take but a few minutes. After all, we have to keep these beasts running," Obergefreiter Anton Krausse gestured at his vehicle, "we might be able to get it running."

"All right, but if we can't?"

"Certainly Sir, if your men can find a handhold on the beast, they're welcome to ride. But let's have a look at the truck."

Krausse and his loader, Panzerkanonier Oskar Albrecht, a very good mechanic, dismounted from StuG 311 and followed von Lüttwitz back down the column. A number of the Major's grenadiers were already riding on the armored vehicles because there weren't enough trucks and the Major wanted his men ready to deal with any enemy infantry they might encounter.

The men who had been riding on StuG 311 dismounted and clustered around the exhaust of the vehicle, it was the only way to stay warm. The snow was coming down harder and it felt as if the temperature had dropped again.

When they reached the disabled Opel Blitz, Unteroffizier Jochen Klassen, the squad leader of Leutnant Manfred Sauer's 2nd Squad had his head under the hood, he yelled out, "Try it now, Helmuth!"

The engine cranked once, then stopped. Albrecht walked up to the vehicle and said, "Mind if I have a look, Unteroffizier?"

"Knock yourself out, I think it's a clogged fuel line, but what I know about motors would fit on the head of a very small pin." Unteroffizier Klassen stepped back.

Albrecht had a look in the engine compartment, then got under the vehicle. "Hey Unteroffizier, do you have a hammer?"

"Uh, if you need to hit something, I've got a big wrench."

A hand came out from under the truck, "That will work nicely." Klassen handed the man the wrench he had in his hand.

"Tell your boy to start cranking when you hear me banging on something."

Klassen looked at Grenadier Helmuth Holländer, sitting in the Opel's driver's seat, who nodded, indicating that he'd heard the armor crewman. When he heard the metallic sound of the wrench banging on something, he cranked the engine. It coughed once, then fired and began to run, roughly at first, but smoothing out in seconds.

Albrecht came out from under the vehicle and handed the wrench back to Klassen, "There you go, these beasts can be temperamental, but sometimes you just have to know where to hit them."

With the truck running once more, the men of the 5th Company got back aboard their vehicles and the convoy set off once more. Von Lüttwitz had been given no time table for when his men were needed at the small crossroads just beyond the last bunkers of the Westwall, but no doubt the Army wanted them there yesterday.

Hopefully the few men at the crossroads were still holding.


"So how much further is this place L.T.?" Sgt. Woodrow Sherman, the platoon guide had been checking the map, and based on the terrain around him, he figured that they were still a half mile short of where they were supposed to be.

2nd Lt. Stephen Hernandez leaned over to look at Sherman's map, "Where do you think we are?"

Sherman pointed, Hernandez shook his head, "Nope, we passed this big hill about 15 minutes ago, we're right about..." Hernandez searched the map, then stabbed it with a finger, "there. You see it now?"

Hernandez had been trying to get all of his sergeants up to speed on their map reading skills. A few of them had never really learned how, he was fixing that. As he talked with Sherman, showing him how to compare the contour lines to the actual terrain, the halftrack started to slow down. Hernandez leaned into the driver's compartment.

"What's up Ted, why are we stopping?" He asked Pfc. Theodore Erickson, the man driving the vehicle, who was also one of the platoon messengers.

"Have a look, Sir. See that building up ahead?"

Hernandez got up and examined the building Erickson had pointed out with his field glasses. He slowly scanned around it, then it struck him, why was there no snow around the door? Perhaps the place was occupied, and if so, by whom?

As he watched, he saw a man step out of the building, a man dressed in a white snow suit.

A man carrying a rifle.

Grenadier Herbert Schule needed to urinate, he grabbed his MP 44 and stepped out of the building. The wind was blowing again and visibility was terrible. As the wind was blowing towards the crossroads, he hadn't heard the American vehicles approaching.

As he buttoned his trousers back up, he turned to go back into the small building his squad was sheltering in, as the wind let up, he saw the enemy vehicle sitting in the road not fifty meters from him.

"Hey Rudi, come out here, there's a truck or something down the road."

Gefreiter Rudi Himmels grumbled that it was cold outside, was it a truck or not? But he got up and went out.

"What do you think you see lad?" He looked in the direction Schule was pointing, he saw nothing but wind driven snow. "I don't see..."

Then the wind dropped, sitting in the road was an American halftrack, its big machine gun manned and pointing in their direction.


"Yeah, those are Krauts, let 'em have it." Hernandez slapped Pvt. Will Jones on the shoulder, he was manning the halftrack's .50 caliber machine gun.

Jones triggered the big gun and walked his tracers right into the two Germans who had been staring up the road at them. They had started to move, but to no avail, Jones was sure he had hit them both.

"Hose the building, Will. I'll bet there are more Krauts inside!"

Jones did as commanded, he could see pieces of the structure flying off as he hit it.

"Okay, that's enough." Hernandez waved back at Sgt. Diego Pena in the track behind his, that man and his squad dismounted and came up.

"What do ya got, L.T.?"

"Krauts in that small structure, we hammered it, I want to advance but I want your guys on foot right behind me, in case there's more of the bastards." Hernandez also dismounted with his small command team. They all began to move up as Erickson drove the halftrack forward, Jones still on the .50.

As the men slowly approached the now ruined structure, they saw two dead Germans outside. As Pvt. Edward Walsh covered the door to the place with his B.A.R., Sgt. Pena shoved the door open. Inside were three more Germans, all quite dead, and a shattered radio.

"I wonder if they got a report off?" Pena said, looking at Hernandez.

"Who knows, let's get the rest of the platoon up here. How far back are Woodstock's Shermans?" Hernandez looked at Cpl. John Myerson, his radioman, who, after a few words into his handset looked up at the lieutenant.

"S/Sgt Woodstock heard the .50, he said they'll be up in two minutes!"

"Great, let's check things out. This is the crossroads we're supposed to hold. John, get on the horn to company, let the Cap'n know we're on the objective!"

Major von Lüttwitz and Leutnant Sauer were both riding on the lead Sturmgeschütz, they felt the vehicle begin to slow down.

"What's the problem, Anton?" Sauer asked the vehicle commander.

"Ami tank at the crossroads, there's at least one halftrack as well, so they have infantry. What do you want to do?" Obergefreiter Krausse had seen the distinctive silhouette of the big American panzer. It had had a coat of white wash applied at some point in the past but it was wearing off, so the tank was more green than white. It was the only reason he'd spotted the American vehicle.

Major von Lüttwitz lowered his field glasses, "Manfred, get the men off the vehicles. Krausse, can you kill that tank with your first shot?"

Krausse lowered his own glasses, "How soon will your men be ready? I can kill him from here, easy. Thanks to our low silhouette, I don't think the Amis have spotted us yet."

"All right, Manfred, get the boys on line, heads down. On my signal, we'll head in, hopefully we can hit these people hard enough that they won't stand."

"Herr Major, we don't know their strength..." Sauer began.

"I know, Manfred, I know, but if we hit them hard enough..."

"Zu befehl, Herr Major!¹" Sauer headed to the rear to get the infantry off the vehicles and out into the fields to either side of the road. He certainly hoped that the Amis would focus on the assault guns on the road and not see his infantry in the snow.

Sgt. Douglas Harrell, commanding the Sherman the crew had named "Misfit," was directing his driver, Cpl. William Simpson, into position some twenty yards to the left of his platoon commander's tank. He looked up for a moment and thought he saw something across the fields to his front.

As he brought his field glasses to bear on the thing that he saw, the gun on the 'thing' fired.

"Jesus, Jay, that's a f**king Sturmgeschütz out there!"

Gefreiter Wilfried Krüger, commanding StuG 312 watched his first round sail high over the turret of the tank he had engaged. He swore at his loader as the turret of that tank began to move in his direction, "Come on, Gottfried, get that round up or we're all dead!"

"Panzergranate geladen!²"


Sgt. Kenneth Boyd winced as the German antitank round glanced off the side of 'Box o' Nuts' turret. "F**k!! Larry, do you see that f**ker at two o'clock?"

Pfc. Lawrence Bradley, 'Box o' Nuts' gunner barked out, "Got him! On the way!"

The Sherman's cannon fired, at this short range, even the well-protected StuG which engaged them had no chance. Boyd saw sparks on the enemy vehicle's hull, an instant later there was a glowing hole where the shot had pierced the enemy's armor.

Panzerkanonier Norbert Schenk, the driver of StuG 312 screamed as the antitank round punched through the armor just to the right of his vision port. A centimeter further and the Sherman's round would have hit the gun mantlet and probably ricocheted away. As it was, the round went through the armor, causing a long fragment of steel to spall from the interior of the vehicle which sliced Schenk's right arm off with nearly surgical precision.

The round had continued on, missing Gefreiter Anton Behrmann, the gunner, completely but hitting the gun's breech and shattering, killing Gefreiter Wilfried Krüger instantly and mortally wounding the loader, Panzerkanonier Gottfried Riedel.

If Behrmann had had his own hatch, he might have survived the destruction of StuG 312. But when the ammunition behind the dead commander had gone off, setting the vehicle on fire, Behrmann had no chance. He died screaming as he burned.

Schenk managed to pull himself from his driver's seat onto the front of the vehicle, where he died from massive blood loss before he would have burned to death.

Leutnant Sauer looked to his commander, Major von Lüttwitz was already signaling to the men to fall back. It wasn't a single Ami tank, two more had revealed themselves shortly after StuG 312 blew itself apart.

As the infantry scrambled back into the trees near the crossroads, they stayed low. Von Lüttwitz's opportunity of seizing the crossroads by a coup de main had failed. Now he must come up with a better plan.

With one less armored vehicle to assist him.

¹ At your command, Major!"
² Anti-tank round loaded!
³ Fire!!

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  1. Very well written. An excellent description of warfighting in the deep winter.
    This chapter could very well serve as teaching material at NCO and Officer School level.

  2. Sarge, I often get the sense from your writing that small errors in judgement - step outside for a bathroom break or standing up when there seems to be no-one around or even the odd noise - are costly. True in other parts of life, of course, just never thought about it that way.

    It does make me wonder how that generation looked at something like "White Christmas" with its cold Winter presented as serene. Perhaps not as nostalgic as I might imagine.

    1. I've heard that many men who lived through the Battle of the Bulge wanted nothing to do with snow ever again!

    2. Same with those who survived Chosin. And the Aleutian campaign. Brrrr...

      As to "White Christmas," there were lots of people who believed the song was demoralizing and wanted it banned. I can tell you, when it's cold and miserable out there, and you're separated from your loved ones, WC can go either way, serene and nostalgic or contemplating suck-starting your firearm. Though, during WWII, most saw it as serene and nostalgic, fortunately, and the ones stuck fighting in the snow didn't have a lot of time to contemplate the deep meanings of Der Bingle's tune.

    3. I've heard it said among Bulge veterans the 3 things etched in their minds are the cold, snow, and blood on the snow...

  3. I think I'd mentioned before that my Army and Marine Corps coworkers made fun of my lack of knowledge about mapping and reading contour lines.
    I explained to them that when ships experience contour lines, it's called going aground.

    As TB said, the cost of getting almost everything right can be very high.

    1. And close DOES count with hand grenades.

    2. Funny, JoP, I learned contour maps from doing small boat piloting with me dad. When the chart says 2' at low tide, do not try to take your 2.5' draft vessel across it.

      Though fishing the ledges and drop-offs, and underwater 'hills' was a very successful thing.

    3. Map reading, a lost art it would seem.

    4. Beans. The Navy does take depth readings very seriously. And I never thought of it the way you put it. Charts are ocean topo maps that start at sea level and go down.
      Sarge. It's been a very long time since I navigated with a paper map. We use GPS for both our hiking and our driving. On that thought though, G Maps is a sort of electronic paper map.

    5. Google Maps really is an electronic paper map. Turn the GPS off, you can still navigate manually, you just have to know where you are.

    6. (Don McCollor)..situational awareness is important...Informally telling newbie paleo students. Lost? Got a compass or can see the sun? Go more or less north until you hit the Missouri River, then turn upstream (left) to where the cars are parted. Or go west until you get to the road we came in on. Or go due south till you get to the county road. Do not go east...

  4. My very first military class was map reading, served me well.

  5. Was the StuG 312's gunner just not aiming well, or was the defect due to bad ammo or possibly other sabotage? I mean, with the long 75mm, the Sherms should have been easy targets at that range. We'll never know, unless the writer wishes to tell us...

    Aiming does matter. Even at close range. As you pointed out, hitting the gun mantle of the StuG might not have penetrated, though it might have put the gun out of action.

    And neat photo of the StuG. Like the gun shield for the pintle MG. It's nice to have something somewhat protective to cringe behind when you're exposed.

    Good capture of desperation and lack of luck/skill. Stupid is not often too deadly in the civilian world, but is often very deadly in the military world.

    And... never exit except out the face of a building opposite the side(s) toward the enemy...

  6. Since the driver got out of the StuG,was it a StuG IV, with a driver's hatch?

  7. Sarge - I had to smile with the "rap the hammer on the truck" segment. With older Mercedes with Mechanical fuel injection (a design that goes right back to their magnificent DB600 series of aviation engines) - if the car wouldn't turn over a quick solution was to rap the coffee-can sized electric fuel pump to jar the worn brushes.

    Many times it worked!

    1. Me too - and whacking the solenoid unit of a starter on older domestic cars and trucks also often worked when the starter wouldn't engage

  8. "Aiming does matter. Even at close range" - applies universally to every kind of gun, including shotguns, who many seem to think spray shot all over the place so no need to aim - they are not correct in that thought ...

    1. With tank guns, yes. In a military context, for infantry, volume of fire is more important than accuracy. You seldom can see the enemy on the battlefield, while accuracy is good, if you can't see the target, accuracy is overrated. The idea is to keep their heads down while your maneuver elements get in close to the enemy's flank or even rear.

      Again, in an infantry context, accuracy is nice, but volume trumps that.


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