Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Escape from Cologne*


It took more than three hours for Grenadiers Ernst Schottenstein and Peter Meyer to travel to battalion headquarters, then back to where the 5th Company had been dug in, they were no longer there. The company had set off for the Rhine crossing at Rodenkirchen, Schottenstein and Meyer finally caught up with them just short of Klettenberg. Schottenstein heaved a massive sigh of relief when he saw Leutnant Manfred Sauer standing next to the hood of his Kübelwagen with his platoon commanders.

(The red X marks the rendezvous mentioned below.)

"Herr Leutnant!" Schottenstein yelled out as he shut the motorcycle down and dismounted.

"Ernst, what news from battalion?" Sauer asked, looking up from the map he had spread over the hood of his car.

"The Köln-Rodenkirchen bridge is down, it's been down since late January. Major von Lüttwitz suggests a rendezvous in Köln itself, near the cathedral." Schottenstein nodded his thanks as Hauptfeldwebel Klaus-Peter Keller handed him a steaming cup of ersatz coffee. Though it didn't taste great, the warmth of the beverage felt good in the the twilight of a misty and chilly March evening.

"Oh yes, I was to give you this as well." Schottenstein pulled a scrap of paper from his tunic pocket and handed it to his lieutenant.

After reading the note from the Major, Sauer recognized the man's writing, he sighed and looked around. "Gentlemen, we may be trapped on this side of the river. It seems the Amis have closed up along the length of the river from here nearly all the way to Koblenz. Division seems to think they can arrange a ferry to shuttle us and our vehicles across the river. We still hold enough of Köln on this side of the river to make that possible. In a day or two, that may not be possible. Spieß, Haasen, Klügmann, get your men loaded up, we're moving. Schottenstein?"

"Yes Sir?"

"You've been there, can you lead us through?" Sauer queried the weary looking motorcycle messenger.

"Certainly Sir, we found a way which wasn't too clogged with either refugees, rubble, or rabble.¹" Schottenstein answered, with a grin.

"Rabble, Ernst? Surely you don't mean retreating elements of the mighty German Wehrmacht?"

"The ones we saw in uniform had no arms, damned few were wearing helmets, they looked like a retreating rabble, Herr Leutnant. Not an army, but rabble. You know, riff-raff. Very few sergeants, no officers at all." Schottenstein explained.

"Very well, Ernst. Lead on."

Sauer picked his helmet up from the hood of the car, he was using it to hold down a corner of the map, then folded the map up and returned it to his map case. Looking at his driver, Unterfeldwebel Georg Pflüger, Keller, and his radioman, Grenadier Christof Schmidt, he said, "Once more into the breach dear friends. Do you know the way Georg?"

"Yes Sir." Pflüger answered as he put the car in gear and worked his way into an opening in the company column. He wondered if he should mention to the lieutenant that they were down to about a quarter tank of fuel. The little Kübel could go a long way on that, he doubted the halftracks could.

"Strickland, Schultz, Page!" S/Sgt Jack Wilson called out the names and then looked up. The three Basic Duty privates from the platoon headquarters group came over to him. They all had a "now what" look on their faces.

"Strickland, you're being temporarily assigned to 2nd Squad. Schulz and Page, you're both going to 3rd squad. We need you guys to bring those two squads up to the strength of 1st Squad. All three squads are short three guys, but there's no word on replacements coming in any time soon." Wilson knew the men being replaced, he considered all of the men in the platoon to be his guys, he made an effort to know their names. This job was killing him inside.

He was still in shock that Stump Gentile was gone, not wounded, but dead. He'd seen the man's corpse, he'd talked to the men who were with him when he was hit. He was still trying to get Charlie Gammell to realize that it wasn't his fault that Stump was dead. The Kraut machine gun which had killed him had exercised excellent fire discipline, not opening up until Gentile's 3rd Squad had advanced into the open.

In truth, Gentile had made a mistake. He had assumed that the Kraut 88 crew would give up as soon as two of their men went down from Gammell's sniper rifle. They didn't. While a lot of Germans were quitting as soon as they had the chance, many of them, in fact Wilson thought most of them, were still fighting. At least those who had nowhere to run. He had to talk to the men, make sure that they didn't slack up. While the Germans were starting to give up in significant numbers, a lot of them seemed intent on fighting until the last bullet.

A look at a map would tell even the most obtuse observer that Germany was nearly finished. The Russians were at the Oder, the Western Allies had closed up to the Rhine and were within striking distance of the industrial heart of Germany, the Ruhr. Wilson figured that the war would be over by summer. At least the European portion of it.

One of his persistent nightmares was the thought of surviving the fighting here in Europe, then being sent to fight the Japanese in the Pacific and dying on some God-forsaken island. Of his five best buddies from high school, two had already been killed in the Pacific, one with the Marines on Tarawa, the other with the Navy, his plane (he was an aerial gunner) had launched from his aircraft carrier and never returned.

One had returned from the fighting on Saipan missing his left leg. Only he and Jed Perkins were unscathed. Knock on wood, Wilson thought as he went back to the platoon CP.


Sauer met up with Major Jürgen von Lüttwitz in front of a burning apothecary's shop. It had not been easy getting to this spot, the two soldiers who had volunteered to act as guides had grown up in this region of Germany and could no longer recognize the shattered city of Köln. Only the magnificent cathedral still stood, though damaged in multiple air raids, the two spires were still standing.

The men nearby, though technically behind the lines, were wary and had their weapons at the ready. The Americans were rumored to be pressing hard into the city, some had heard that the Ami tanks were within a half kilometer of the cathedral. Sauer looked around at his men, they looked hunted. Faces begrimed with dirt, their eyes glittered in the flickering light from the nearby fires.

Hauptfeldwebel Keller re-joined the small group, he had been nearby checking the men, making sure that everyone had had something to eat. Rations were starting to run low. Not as low as the fuel they had remaining in their vehicles, but low enough that Keller was starting to wonder what they would eat in a few days.

"Rather reminds me of accounts of the Thirty Years War." Keller said, looking around at his surroundings. He had studied history before the war, it was a favorite subject of his. Sometimes he forgot that the topic wasn't everyone's cup of tea.

"How so, Spieß?" Pflüger asked him, he knew little of Germany's history.

"Mass deaths, chaos, an entire breakdown of law and order, such as it was back then. The armies, mostly mercenaries, were unpaid and not fed, so they began to roam the countryside, taking what they wanted from whomever they could. It just has this, end of the world feeling to it. You do see that Pflüger, yes?" Keller looked at the younger sergeant. Though Pflüger had been a soldier only since 1943, he did have some experience with chaos and the loss of order. He had, after all, served in the East and had first-hand experience of the destruction of Army Group Center in the summer of 1944. He had been there.

"Ja Spieß, it is approaching that level of chaos. What happens next, I wonder?"

"What happens next Junge,² is one of two things, we die, or we surrender." Major von Lüttwitz said, which made the men go silent. They were used to Leutnant Sauer's bluntness about the war in general and the Nazis in particular, but this was the first time the Major had expressed himself so openly.

Von Lüttwitz continued, "That being said, I have no desire to do either, just yet."

"What are our options, Herr Major? Going north, not possible, the south is the same, the Amis are all along the river as far south as Koblenz, yes?" Sauer asked.

"Two of the men on my battalion staff worked as bargemen on the Rhine before the war. One of them says he knows where a vessel might be acquired. We can get the men across, but we'll have to abandon our vehicles." Von Lüttwitz answered his 5th Company commander. He wished he knew what had happened to his other company, all he knew is that they had been cut off in one of the western districts of the city, the Belgisches Viertel, which the Americans had captured. He feared that his 6th Company was completely lost.

"It's not like we have fuel to keep them running much longer anyway." Keller said.

"True. So it's a Rhine cruise for us, strip the vehicles of anything useful, especially the machine guns, Spieß, get with the platoon commanders. Have them get ready. Where do we rendezvous, Herr Major?" Sauer wanted to get things moving, even if they couldn't find water transport, he wanted the men together.

Von Lüttwitz brought his map out, pointing to it, he said, "Here, near the western terminus of the Deutzer Brücke, in the Eisenmarkt. Make your preparations gentlemen, it's tonight or we fight in the rubble of the city."

Charlie Gammell lit another cigarette from the stub of the old one. "Filthy habit." he grumbled to himself. His squad was staying away from him, they felt the same, they needed time to process Gentile's death. He'd already told Pfc. Frank Barnett that he was the new assistant squad leader, shortly after 1st Lt. Hernandez (and wouldn't that take some getting used to?) had confirmed Gammell's leadership of 3rd Squad.

The L.T. had told him, "It's not your fault that Stump's dead, Charlie." Gammell had taken offense at that.

"I know that, Sir. The f**king Germans killed him. But if I had spotted that MG team earlier..."

"Exactly my point, Charlie, you can't see everything, you can't anticipate everything. Sgt. Gentile died. If it hadn't been yesterday, it maybe would've been down the road a ways. I think his number was up." Hernandez had responded.

"You believe in Fate, L.T.?" Gammell had asked.

"What other reason does one man die, but the guy next to him just gets wounded? If it ain't Fate, it's luck, or some other factor we have no control over. War is terrible, people die, sometimes it's people we know. Do you think the guy who commanded that Kraut machine gun nest knew that all he had to do was not fire, just surrender, and he and his crew would still be alive? No, he figured he was dead one way or the other. So he fought on."

"I get it, thanks L.T., I'll be all right, I just need to think on this a bit."

"Don't think too long, we're on the move tomorrow. They're trucking us down to cross the river at Remagen. It'll be a few days before Cologne is cleared, they want the Big Red One to move east and keep killing Germans. Orders group at 1800, do you have an assistant squad leader yet?"

"Yes Sir, Pfc. Barnett."

"Okay, tell him he's an acting corporal, he can go ahead and put on the stripes. Same goes for you, acting sergeant. I have no doubt that Tex will approve those promotions. Cap'n Palminteri has already put the request in writing. Hang in there Charlie."

"Thanks, L.T., you too."

The sound of artillery rumbled in the near distance. The rattle of machine gun and rifle fire punctuated the night, interspersed with the occasional explosions 
nearby. Fire lit the night sporadically, both from burning buildings and explosions. Parachute flares, fired by men nervous of not being able to see their surroundings, lit the rubble of Köln with flickering shadows, it seemed to make visibility worse.

The men of the 8th Panzergrenadier Regiment's 2nd Battalion weren't really watching all of that, they were filing aboard a filthy Rhine barge, one of two that the former sailors had managed to organize, along with a tug. One of the men, Alois Schulze, had told the Major that it had enough fuel to get across the river, they could travel up river a ways, they had enough fuel to fight the current to get that far.

"You and Rolf will have no trouble with this set-up?" von Lüttwitz had asked. He had no experience with river travel.

"Not a bit, Sir. Now if the men are all aboard, we should get moving. We don't want to be on the river at sunrise."

"Absolutely agree Gefreiter, let's be off."

As the barges slid into the current and into the night, the ancient city of Cologne burned.

* With apologies to Snake Plisken.
¹ In German - Flüchtlinge, Trümmer, und Gesindel.
² Lad

Link to all of The Chant's fiction.


  1. Memory flashback: for a while, the phrase "Now what" appeared regularly in Beetle Bailey.

  2. Once more, dear friends...Sauer knows his Shakespeare! They will meet at the egg market?

  3. Call me Snake. My name is Plisken. I got a kick out of that movie.

    Both sides are hunted and haunted by the continuing stress.

    1. For the Germans, it will get worse I think. The Allies know what comes after, or at least they think they do. The Germans face the great unknown.

  4. A city in ruins...death around the corner......escape problematic........ya, Snake Plissken is the answer.

    1. They got out while the getting was good.

    2. Better a minute too early than a second too late.
      Boat Guy

  5. This last movement illustrates something I used to point out to my land-brothers"; we are 90 degrees offset. "You guys come to a river and you see a barrier, I see a highway"
    Boat Guy

  6. Good stuff. Feels like I am right there with them, alternately on both sides.
    John Blackshoe.

  7. I can only imagine what it's like to be cold, hungry, bone weary and still have to go on and on into ever a more uncertain future.

    Seems Herr Major gets it. The End is Nigh (to quote a popular saying...) and there are no good decisions, or are there? Death, surrender, stand and fight, withdraw and fight another day but when is there no more room for fighting? How long can the slaughter continue?

    I do not envy Herr Major. Not one bit.

    Nor do I envy our American friends. A loss here, a loss there, random sickness, a shot in the dark, and the occasional stupid death (like not taking care of one's feet and dying of gangrene or trying to tough it out when wounded and tetanus sets in.)

    The fear of 'Winning in Europe and Dying in the Pacific' was a real fear of many an ETO soldier. Which almost came true, only being derailed by the two bombs. Can't imagine, surviving North Africa, then Italy, then Normandy and the race/slog across France and plowing into Germany and then going into retraining to most likely die in Japan.

    Wonder how many men wounded themselves after Germany fell so they didn't have to go? And, truthfully, knowing what I know about the PTO, they were justified. I'm sure the flag raising on Iwo picture has reached the men by now. Along with stories of the deaths on Iwo and Saipan.

    As to the water bug-out, they best ground soonest as the US holds the riverbank to the north of Koln/Cologne, does it not? And twitchy fingers on either a .50BMG or a tank cannon in overwatch is a great way to ruin a nice Rhine Cruise.

    It's times like this that the big guys in charge need to step back, take a breath, and just acknowledge reality.

    But then again, the Germans are really fighting for their homes now, what's left of them. Sure, they can surrender, but how many are fighting to allow the Easterners a chance to escape in front of the Soviets? How many are fighting to defend their homes, or to get even for all the deaths?

    Bleh. Morose mood.

    'Good' tale you tell, for values of 'good' dealing with workmanship and quality of writing. But definitely dark and bitter, like the coffee left in one of those 100 cup urns at the end of the workday. (Which, well, I like because it's like poor man's expresso and has enough caffeine to wake a dead elephant. With cream and sugar, of course...)

    1. It was a dark and bitter time.

      Kinda like now.

    2. More like the time right before the Spanish Civil War became kinetic and all too brutal.

    3. There are parallels, that's for sure.

  8. I think in the ETO there was a points system - if you had enough points you would not be going to the Pacific. Otherwise....I am trying to put myself in the Major's place - if you know that all is lost where do you take your unit? Certainly no offensive operations. That is a dilemma.

    I have often wondered in the Pacific how many Hellcats, Wildcats, Avengers and Corsairs sit 1000s of feet in the bottom, with a location known only to God?

    1. The points system was for rotating back to the States.

    2. And was kinda thrown out in the ramp-up to the potential invasion of Japan. Covered very well in the "Band of Brothers" episode called... "Points."

      After the Bombings and the follow up Surrender of Japan!!! I bet the collective sigh of relief could be heard around the world.

    3. Japanese had planned this massive program of civilian resistance called Ketsu-Go. And one thing that blew my mind when I read about that they made initial order of 500,000 purple hearts anticipating the casualties on Japan.

      Since the surrender came after the bomb they didn’t need all those purple hearts and they continued to use them until very recently.

    4. Beans - I've talked to guys who were in the ETO, they were very happy to not have to go to the Pacific. The guys who were already in the PTO, they thanked God for those two bombs. Ironically enough, those two bombings saved at least a million lives, Japanese lives.

    5. William - And that's a true story.

    6. (Don McCollor)...By the projected date of Operation Olympic, seven Fat Man would be available and would be used in support. The first divisions ashore were being written off by the planners as 'no longer militarily effective' after a couple days. It would have been bad...

  9. If you fail to give a defeated enemy a way to escape or surrender, they will fight bitterly until the end - some military commander, some time in human history.

    It feels like we are coming into the final lanes for the last stretch.

  10. It may be artistic license but....

    Sauer et al just crossed a bridge a week ago to get to the western side of the Rhine. You mentioned it enough times - we have to cross east, go north, cross again to the west... - that it's sticky in the mind. it does bear an explanation as to why that bridge is no longer available.

    Sauer or JvL doing an internal curse of: "it was the devil's own luck that the bridge we had just crossed last week had been taken out by xxx just the day before"

    1. As how the loss of bridges over the Rhine isn't that critical to the story, suffice to say the bridge was there, now it isn't. So yes, artistic license. I do mention that the Allies have closed up along the Rhine all the way to Koblenz, so even if a bridge was still up (Remagen might have still been standing) there was no way to get there from the west bank of the Rhine. But thanks for the input, I'll be more careful next time.


Just be polite... that's all I ask. (For Buck)
Can't be nice, go somewhere else...

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