Thursday, February 4, 2021

The Crossroads, Part Three


Privates Edward Walsh and Joseph Scott were on watch together in their squad's section of the line. Neither man had really gotten any sleep. They were two-thirds of Sgt. Diego Pena's Browning Automatic Rifle team, the other man, Pvt. Dan O'Neill was sleeping fitfully to Walsh's right.

They were in a ditch next to the road running parallel to the German position about 150 yards away across a snowy field. The Germans were in the woods, they were in a ditch. The three men had managed to scrape a deeper hole in the ditch but Scott had not taken his field jacket off while he was working. As a result he had sweated and when they were done, the sweat chilled him to the bone. Now his nose was running and he couldn't stop sneezing.

"Geez Joe, ya sound like shit." Walsh remarked.

"Good, 'cause I feel like shit." Scott said, then sneezed again.

Walsh heard O'Neill stirring beside him, "Hey, are you two gonna yap all f**king night or what? Can't a guy get some sleep around here?"

Walsh checked his watch, "It's almost time for stand to anyway, Dan, so ya might as well get up."

"Already?" O'Neill asked. As he did so, he heard a rumbling noise emanating from the German line. "What the heck is that?"

"Krauts have been running their engines periodically, all damned night, probably to keep the oil from getting too thick." Walsh explained.

O'Neill rolled his blanket up and began to strap it to his pack when a loud pop came from the other side of the field. He looked up to see a single red flare arch into the sky.

"That can't be good." He muttered as he picked up his Garand and checked to see that it was loaded.

"Shit," Walsh groaned, "keep your heads down fellas, I think things are about to get hot."

Obergefreiter Anton Krausse saw the red flare and looked at his loader, Panzerkanonier Oskar Albrecht. Albrecht said over the intercom, "Nebelgranate geladen!¹"

Over the radio, Krausse ordered, "Alle Sturmgeschütze, Nebelgranate feuer!²"

From their widely separated positions the 7.5 cm cannons of Krausse's three vehicles barked once, then a second time, sending smoke rounds toward the American line. As those rounds detonated, they began to form a thickening veil in front of the American positions.

Krausse waited perhaps two seconds after his gunner had fired their second smoke round when he ordered, "Laden Sie Sprenggranate!"

Albrecht had already loaded a high explosive round, so he barked, "Sprenggranate geladen!"

Each vehicle in Krausse's small platoon fired three high explosive rounds, when the cannons went silent, they loaders each shoved an armor-piercing round into the breeches of their 7.5 cm guns. Then their vehicles rolled forward.

"L.T., there's a crap load of Krauts boiling out of the woods, they've got three assault guns backing them up, they're all rolling right at you!" Though it was still dark, Cpl. Charlie Gammell was able to see a lot from the knoll he and Pvt. Jeb McCall were occupying. He was using his walkie-talkie to communicate with the platoon CP, which was roughly twenty yards back from the road.

"We're blind down here Charlie!" Cpl. John Myerson was on the other end of the conversation, 2nd Lt. Stephen Hernandez was currently out on the line with two of his basic duty privates, Fred Strickland and Philip Dyer.

"You guys might want to skedaddle, there's gotta be a hundred plus Krauts headed your way!" Gammell radioed once more.

"Keep your heads down you guys, I gotta find the L.T., if you see us start to fall back, meet us at the rally point! Charlie Two, out!" With that, Myerson signed off.

"Go slow, Hubert, we don't want to run down any of the infantry." Krausse was worried about running over the grenadiers to his front, they were supposed to keep to the intervals between the lumbering assault guns but you never knew what a man would do in a firefight. He could hear automatic weapons fire and men shouting in German. He also heard muffled explosions to his front, that had to be the rifle grenades the men behind were firing over everybody's heads.

"I hope to God those Schießbecher³ lads know what they're doing!" Panzeroberkanonier Hubert Hering muttered, he was getting a headache from all of the noise. He didn't fancy those kids accidently dropping a grenade on his head, he was driving with his hatch open, it was the only way that he could see what he was doing.

2nd Lt. Hernandez and his two men were running low, heading for the center of the platoon's position. He was worried that the men manning the .50s on the halftracks would fire too low and hit their buddies, he was stunned when he realized that no one was firing at all!

He reached the halftrack belonging to Sgt. Diego Pena's group and yelled up at the man manning the gun. "Can you see anything, Private, anything at all?"

"Negative, L.T., we can't see shit, but we can hear the Krauts coming and..."

At the moment a German rifle grenade went off in the air about ten yards to Pvt. Frank Genovese's right, he ducked down when it detonated, though had it been closer that would have been a waste of time.

"SHIT! F**kers are getting close L.T.!"

"Open fire, keep your muzzle up!!" Then Hernandez was running back to the platoon CP. When he heard Genovese open fire, it was as if it was a signal for all the vehicle machine guns to open up. Hernandez felt better hearing the roar of the big .50s. No doubt the Germans were less thrilled.

Unteroffizier Jürgen Klügmann's squad was ten meters from the road when his squad was hit by automatic weapons fire. Three of his men, Grenadiers Harry Zimmermann, Johannes Kaufmann, and Richard Meier were torn to red ruin almost immediately.

"Follow me boys!" Klügmann screamed as he advanced firing from the hip. The remainder of his squad, only four men besides himself, also began to scream and fire their Stg 44s.

As he stepped forward he stumbled over a snow bank, it was snow piled up from when the road had been plowed some days ago. As he caught himself from falling, there in front of him was an American. His eyes were wide and staring. The kid didn't know what was going on, Klügmann shot him.

Pvt. Bill Ramsey had no chance, the burst from the screaming German nearly took his head off. His squad mate, Pvt. Curtis Lambert, yelled "F**k" then emptied his weapon into the German. The German's momentum carried him into the ditch where Lambert's squad was beginning to fire into the dissipating smoke.

Four more Germans stumbled into the ad hoc trench line. The first man, Obergefreiter Gerd Weber, Klügmann's assistant squad leader, drove his bayonet into Lambert's chest. The young American gasped, then died.

Sgt. Diego Pena felt his men beginning to give way, he fired at, and thought he hit one German, then he saw one of his men run. The other men fired another round or two but when Pena went down with a bullet to the chest, his assistant, Cpl. John Chapman realized that they couldn't hold.

"Fall back, keep firing, fall back to the tracks. Steady boys, steady!"

Sgt. Doug Harrell, commanding the Sherman named "Misfit" couldn't see a damned thing, it was dark, it was smoky, but he was doing his damndest to fight back. He stood on the engine deck of "Misfit" firing his .50 cal towards the Germans. But there seemed to be a lot of Germans, and a lot of German bullets in the air, he could hear them pinging off his tank from time to time.

Then he saw it, one of those damned Stugs, lumbering right into the line. Time to be a tanker again, he jumped into his hatch and hurriedly connected his intercom lead, "Jay, target, 11 o'clock, Kraut Stug!"

As the turret moved in that direction, Harrell saw a flash, he had the sinking feeling that they were too late.

Gefreiter Berthold Schantz in StuG 314 hissed between his teeth when he saw the round his gunner had fired hit the Ami tank. "Laden sie Panzergranate, schnell Alois, schnell!!"

"Panzergranate geladen!" Panzerkanonier Alois Specht barked.

"Feuer!" Schantz screamed as he stomped on his commander's override, firing the gun.

The tank in his view port exploded.

"Shit! Misfit is toast, anybody got a target, I can't see a damned thing!" Sgt. Otto Walls, in his tank, "The Wall" was nearly sobbing. Doug Harrell was his best friend. Then the telephone attached to the rear of his tank buzzed, "WHAT?" he screamed into the handset.

"It's Lieutenant Hernandez, we're getting clobbered. My men are heading to the rear, we've lost one tank and at least two tracks, fall back to the rally point, we are NOT dying for this f**king crossroads!"

"Okay, get out of here, we'll cover."

"Woody, it's Otto, you up?!" Sgt. Walls yelled into the radio.

"Little busy over here Otto!" Sgt. Walls recognized S/Sgt Bradley Woodstock's voice, the platoon commander.

"The infantry is falling back, their lieutenant ordered us to do likewise!"

"Shit. All tanks, this is Woodstock. Reverse back to the rally point, keep the MG rounds going downrange. Start popping smoke!"

Slowly the Americans were falling back. Major Jürgen von Lüttwitz and his radioman, Grenadier Ernst Schottenstein, were moving up and down through the advancing troops. He wanted the men to stop when they hit the road. His objective was the crossroads, he did not intend to go one step further. He caught glimpses of the Americans falling back, they were in fairly good order, groups covering each other, some moving, some firing.

He could see that at least one Ami panzer was burning, along with at least one of their halftracks. But he could see that one of his StuGs was immobilized, the track had broken and run off the rollers.

Now to get the men in hand and under control. But his damned radio seemed to have given up the ghost.

S/Sgt Jack Wilson was in contact with all three squads, but he had no idea where Hernandez was. He knew that Pena was down, his squad hit pretty hard, but Chapman had rallied the survivors.

Stump and Cat had reported in, both had lost men, no one seemed real sure of who had been hit, but a head count turned up three men missing from Stump's 3rd Squad and two from Cat's 1st Squad.

Now if he could just find the lieutenant.

"Do you see that guy, Charlie? He's got a radioman close by." Pvt. Jeb McCall was sure that he had spotted an officer, they had to move and soon, but at least they could nail one of the bastards that had driven their boys from the crossroads.

"I see him, Jeb." Cpl. Charlie Gammell settled himself, he seemed to become one with his rifle. The sounds of battle faded away as he judged the range. There was almost no wind. He was probably 30 feet higher than his target.

He studied the man in his crosshairs, definitely an officer. He took a breath, let some of it out slowly, then began the slow squeeze which would end a man's life.

The big Springfield barked, surprising Gammell as it did every time he fired. His eye came away from the scope and he sighed. He looked at McCall.

"You got him Charlie, his head came apart! Now let's get the Hell out of here!"

One of the American tanks fired a single round before it disappeared into the early morning haze some five hundred meters away. That round sailed harmlessly over Gefreiter Viktor Hanneman's disabled StuG. Hauptfeldwebel Klaus-Peter Keller, the company Spieß had things well in hand. The company had rallied on the objective, now the squad leaders were trying to get things sorted and organized.

"Guenther, have you seen the Major?" Keller asked Unteroffizier Guenther Burkhard who was standing nearby, distributing ammunition.

"Last I saw him he was headed over to the left, apparently our radios were failing badly today. He couldn't raise Leutnant Sauer or Feldwebel Hase on his radio, he said he could hear Brückner just fine, but couldn't talk to him." With that Burkhard pulled another case of ammo out of the company's wagon, which had just come up moments after Keller himself had arrived on the objective.

Now if he could just find the Major.

The sun came up and slowly cleared the morning fog, it promised to be a clear day, already the American P-47s, P-38s, and P-51s were taxiing in preparation to take to the air for another day of hunting Germans.

B-26s and B-25s were already hitting targets just beyond the German front lines, which were rapidly falling to pieces under the onslaught from the air and the ground.

Elements of a German unit were caught moving near a small crossroads inside Germany by a single flight of P-38s. They strafed the Germans, but those men got under cover in short order. The flight lead was low on fuel, so were his wingmen, he didn't have time to play with the Germans at the moment. He'd head back to base, refuel and re-arm, they'd be back this way in a few hours. The Krauts weren't going anywhere.

¹ Smoke round loaded. (Literally "fog grenade loaded")
² All assault guns, fire smoke!
³ Literally "shooting cups," the term for the rifle grenade attachment on the German K98k rifle. Each Grenadierkompanie had nine men assigned to this role.

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  1. Wow! Sorry about the major. I would have hoped he would’ve helped to reconstruct Germany after the war.

    I guess walking with a radio man makes you prime target number one with the radio man number two.

    1. Why do you assume that the Major was hit? One company commander, three platoon commanders, all with radios. Could have been any one of those four men.

    2. The Norks, ChiComs and Viets all learned very quickly to take out the radioman. Just look for the guy lugging a huge box with an areal.

      And, yeah, caught that ambiguous dead officer reference. Jerk. :)

    3. Defying the speculators. That's me.

  2. Wow, I'm a bit wrung out... When I read things that really grip me, I hear what's happening in the story, and see it. Not so much what's happening HERE. Very engaging...

    1. I get the same way writing this. I'm invested in these characters. Thanks STxAR.

    2. It seems that for as long as I have been reading this epic, I too have become nvested in the characters. One would hope that Major Lutwittz would survive this madness for he seems a straight up guy. He reminds me of the General that addresses his troops at the end of the war in "Band of Brothers".

    3. I based von Lüttwitz on a few Germans I have known, both historically and personally. Von Lüttwitz is a decent man caught in an indecent time, so to speak. He's trying to do his job and take care of his men. As you know, sometimes you just can't do both.

      Great scene in Band of Brothers, a series I've watched multiple times.

    4. I watched that scene again as I wrote that comment. You can see Major Winters empathizing with the German and understanding exactly the sentiment he talked about. I am still moved by that scene no matter how many times I view it.

    5. What a powerful scene! And that scene with Sobel - I always remembered. Everyone had a Sobel, I believe. Sarge - I "assumed" it was von Luttwitz because he was with a radio man and someone was wondering where the major was.

      I think Band of Brother's was as good as the follow-up - The Pacific - was bad. Not that it was really bad - except when compared to B of B. My late father went through that early camp - said they'd give you breakfast then make you run up that hill, puking.

    6. I did like The Pacific but not as much as Band of Brothers, thought both were very well done.

      I think it's in the regulations, every unit has to have a Captain Sobel.

  3. I had to remind myself to breathe as I was reading the attack scenes - very suspenseful. And now I'm wondering just which offizier got hit by Gammell... I remember reading a unit history talking about a similar scene in this general time frame where after the battle, a dead American Sargent was found with his hands locked around the throat of a dead German - they had killed each other...
    Sarge, your writing reminds me a bit of The Americans TV show a while back, which was the story of a couple of deep cover Russian spies living in the DC area. While I got to know them and sympathize with them, I wanted to kill them as well for doing what they were doing to the US at the time... thus it goes with the Germans in yur tale.

    1. I want to watch that show but can't, for precisely the reasons you state. No doubt I will watch it one day.

  4. A short victory for the Germans with clear skies CAS gonna pound 'em. Holding my breath reading today's post Sarge, more names to put on the casualty report.........(sigh).

    1. I haven't counted the cost yet, I don't even know who got hit. A decision I have to make, which really gets to me some days.

  5. Wow. You have a real gift Sarge. That illuminates, as much as anything I have read, the confusion that is inevitably a battle.

    Your ability to bring us characters and then have them die is beyond belief. I do not think I could do it.

    1. Battles are confusing by their very nature. The characters are real to me, so you can imagine the agony I feel knowing that some must pay that last full measure...

  6. Two thumbs up. Realistic story that has me on the edge of my seat! - Barry

  7. I was waiting for the artillery...

    1. Forgot the hit the "notify me" box, got it now!

    2. Rob - I will address the lack of artillery during the attack.

    3. I've never used the "Notify Me" box, let me know how it works for you. Thanks.

    4. It works really well with blogger, not so much for me with wordpress.

    5. Cool. Something to keep in mind when I'm looking at other blogs.

    6. The artillery required being called in. Things went to poop way too quickly for any coherent thought, even amongst the best leaders. What was it, 2-5 minutes between the first smoke round and the last US troop and vehicle leaving?

      And you captured that perfectly. The Germans were prepared, with a plan, and aware. The US, their plan was to wait and respond, and their troops were cold and sluggish. Initiative for the Germans, they took it and kept running with it. Right until the air response comes dropping on their head in 3... 2... 1...

      Between the medium bombers, some based out of France, and the fighter aircraft doing ground attack, there will be lots of payback coming. Especially if the air controllers note the crossroads as a hot zone, then everything in the area that is free to do so will come and just hang around and make life miserable and final for the Germans. Which is tomorrow's lesson, I assume?

    7. See my earlier comment about speculators. 😁

  8. OldAFSarg, this story has really grabbed me. As others have said you have a gift. My wife is an author also and I know how real the characters become. It must be very hard to write about war and you do it well. I am waiting for it to come out as a book.

  9. You captured ground combat very well. When a plan (the US plan to hold and react, maybe move forward) goes to poop, and nothing is going right, the tables turn very quickly.

    In essence, what we have is a very small recreation of the 'Bulge.' The US was caught flatfooted, and had to retreat. The Germans will consolidate and then the overwhelming amount of artillery, air power and surrounding units will come flowing over the Germans and cause what's left of them to retreat.

    Unless Herr Major is smart, and will fall back and let the Amis take the crossroads again. Maybe.

    You have done the 'fog of war' so well even I can't convolute out the outcome. Well done, sir.

    Still, must be hard killing your characters.

    Good job.

    All of this stupidity for a lost cause. How very... Teutonic, no?

    1. Every named character that falls hurts.

      Good point though, this encounter at the crossroads was the Bulge in miniature.

  10. I guess I shall be like the Badger that went over the mountain, and see what I shall see.

  11. Oh, man! Another epic installment. Great job (as usual) Sarge!

  12. This is better than a movie, Sarge!

    1. Theater of the mind winds hands down, IF you have an imagination.

    2. I haven't heard that phrase since college, STxAR!

      Thanks for the memories....

    3. STxAR - Theater of the mind can be very powerful, if, as you say, there's imagination.

    4. drjim - It is a great phrase, one which I haven't heard in a long time either!

    5. I try to purvey esoteric gems that aren't in the vernacular... heh...

      STxAR (on a non-stardard pc)

  13. WOW.
    Now this captures chaos of ground combat, especially at night.
    And it captures German tenacious tactical counterattacks, that has caused so many trouble to allied forces even so late in the war. Basically, Germans never waited to let enemy dig in and prepare, they attacked as soon as possible.
    StuGs are mostly remembered as efficient ambush-type tank killers, but their original reason for existence was infantry support, and they were definbitely capable of doing that.


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