Thursday, March 11, 2021

The Far Shore


"Herbert, this barge is sinking, the water has risen from my ankles to my knees in just a few minutes." Grenadier Herbert Preuß was understandably nervous. The company, along with a large number of men from the battalion staff, had boarded two ramshackle-looking Rhine barges being guided by a tug whose engines kept misfiring before catching again.

Grenadier Ernst Sachse, another 17 year old from the same small village in Lower Saxony as Preuß, had been too terrified to say anything. He had never traveled on a vessel of any sort in his whole life. He had simply assumed that if you traveled over water, you would get wet. That his friend Preuß had used the word "sinking" magnified his terror.

The hiss of shells passing overhead, the occasional explosions nearby, it seemed that the Amis had seen the barges attempting to cross the river and were now trying to stop them. Sachse had no trouble fighting on land, he'd been in the Army since his 16th birthday and had seen action in Italy and in the Ardennes, but being here, on this barge, made him feel helpless.

Unteroffizier Jochen Klassen came to where the two boys were standing, "Getting a little wet back here I see. Not to worry my lads, we're almost at the other side. Feldwebel Haasen wants us to be ready to get off this barge in a hurry when we hit the other side. The Ami cannon are starting to find the range."

As he said that, a near miss rocked the barge and made a number of the soldiers cry out in fear.

"Easy you old women! Papa Sauer won't let his children die in the river! He'll wait until we have our feet on the ground once more, then and only then will he let you die for the Fatherland!" Laughing maniacally, Klassen moved on, the man seemed drunk, but in reality he, like many of the sergeants and officers, hadn't slept properly in days. They were all exhausted beyond belief or care.

Suddenly the tug engines gave a great roar, shoving the barges against the river bank.

"Alle Männer gehen jetzt von Bord! Bewegung! Mach schnell!¹

There was a hurried scramble to get off the barges. The sergeants made sure their units stayed together and that no one got lost in the confusion. Everything was going well until the  American artillery finally found the range.

Fortunately the men were all ashore when the first shell hit the stern of the second barge. The sturdy old vessel had been in use on this section of the river for many years, but no more would she sail the mighty Rhine. The shell tore the stern off the barge and she immediately began to settle. Soon the barge was awash to nearly amidships. The drag from the wrecked barge and the river current was pulling the lead barge back into the river along with the tug itself.

Alois Schulze looked around the pilot house of the laboring tug, "Rolf, all ashore who are going ashore!"

His compatriot was already halfway out the door, "Devil catches the hindmost Alois, move your arse!"

Schulze jammed the throttle full ahead, then muttered, "Bury the old girl's nose in the mud, might buy me a minute or two..." Then he too was out the door and scrambling over the side. His brief return to the waters of the Rhine ended when his buddies pulled him ashore.

"I guess I'm back in the infantry..." he sighed as he watched the barge train take another hit from the American artillery. Now aflame, the burning barges were sucked into the current, pulling at the old tug whose engines finally gave up the ghost with a cough and a loud belching of smoke from the stack.

"Was jetzt?²" Schulze asked.

U.S. Army Photo

"Jesus Sarge, a man could get seasick in this job!" Pvt. Fred Strickland had a death grip on the side of the deuce and a half as the pontoon bridge they were crossing dipped then came back up again.

"What's the problem Strickland, never been on a pontoon bridge before?" Sgt. Enrique Cruz asked, grinning from ear to ear, though truth be told, he didn't much like the sensation either.

"Nope. First time Sarge. Coming over on a ship was bad enough but..."

Everyone ducked as another German shell hit the river and sent water in the air and then over the men crossing the bridge.

"Damn, that was close!" Cpl. John Chapman yelled as he was soaked once again by Rhine River water. "This is why I didn't join the damned Navy!"

At that point Pvt. Leon Higgins vomited all over the floor of the truck.

"Jesus Leon, what the Hell did you eat for breakfast!" One of his squad mates yelled in disgust.

"Didn't know you could get seasick on a truck!" Another man quipped.

Eventually the truck was back on solid ground. Sgt. Cruz hoped the truck driver knew where they were going, because he didn't have a clue. Not even his lieutenant knew, the company commander had told them all to mount up and told the drivers to follow the guy in front of them. The Charlie Company commander, Cpt. Tony Palminteri, led the convoy in his jeep.

After a few more minutes of travel, the trucks all rolled to a stop. Sgt. Cruz stood up to see what was going on, the trucks ahead of theirs were unloading, when he saw 1st Squad dismounting from their truck, he yelled out, "End of the line boys, let's go kill some Germans."

"Herr Major, it seems we have survived another glorious retreat of the mighty German Wehrmacht!" Leutnant Manfred Sauer was happy to see his battalion commander, Major Jürgen von Lüttwitz. "How many men did we save?"

"My staff is still taking the roll, but it appears 250 of us made it across last night. Did you know that our armored component made it over the Hohenzollernbrücke before it collapsed?" von Lüttwitz asked.

"The StuG and the Panthers?" Sauer asked in amazement. "How did the local commander let them slip out of his grasp?"

"He was busy, I'll wager. We've been ordered to Poll. I don't know why, but I'm sure the Army will make that clear in the next day or so. Our division is somewhere along the river south of Köln, fortunately on the eastern bank. I'm not sure how mobile they still are, we can move as fast as we can march. Just like our grandfathers." von Lüttwitz wasn't smiling when he said that, it seemed that the German Army was regressing to an earlier era.

"Hopefully the armored boys have enough fuel to be combat worthy." Sauer groused.

"Indeed. I think the Americans will be across the river in force any day now. If they aren't already."

"But?" Sauer asked.

"We fight on. For the moment." von Lüttwitz answered with a sigh.

"For the moment." Sauer agreed.

¹ Everyone ashore! Move! Make it quick!
² What now?

Link to all of The Chant's fiction.


  1. Sure hope somebody had time to grab a bucket of that Rhine river water to flush out the back of the truck!

    1. I'm sure someone did that. But hey, it's spring in Germany, so it'll probably rain soon anyway.

    2. At least the vomit comet didn't induce the ripple effect. Yaknow, where the smell of vomit starts making everyone else vomit. That would be bad.

    3. Somebody had the foresight to remove the canvas top.

    4. Didn't Patton piss in the Rhine? I read he always said he would when he got there.

    5. If my memory is to be trusted there was a photograph of the bladder emptying hanging on the wall in a drugstore in downtown Newport where Broadway meets Thames Street. Sometime in the 1950's. Old Guns

    6. Yes, yes he did. There is a picture which purports to show him in the act, but it isn't all that clear to me that that's what he's doing. But folks who were there said, "Yup, Patton pissed in the Rhine."

      The picture in question is here.

    7. Old Guns - Maybe the one I posted the link to.

    8. Upon reflection it was a camera store next door to the drug store. Being from Rhode Island I don't know street names, only landmarks.

    9. Even landmarks which aren't there anymore.


  2. Don't mean to belittle men's lives but the chess pieces are in position again.

    1. At the higher levels it looks that way, I guess they have to treat it that way otherwise they might go insane.

      To paraphrase Mongo in Blazing Saddles, we're all only pawns in the game of life.

      Or so it feels at times.

    2. Mongo is one of the great unrecognized modern prophets of our time.

  3. Yes, you can get motion sick on a pontoon bridge. It only takes one plane of motion to induce in some people. The less hardy toss at two planes. All three planes will get to the average barfer. It takes a lot to make the cast-iron-stomach crowd to toss. Planes of motion being; Roll, Pitch, Yaw.

    And the power of premium up-chuck is awe-inspiring. One day in California my dad decided to take the whole family out fishing on our boat. On a day when the mighty Pacific was a tad more frisky than normal. After launching, we got out to the open ocean and hit the big rollers, and I lost about a week's worth of stomach content, all over my dad's leather boat shoes. By the time we got turned around and headed back, maybe 5 minutes total, the shoes were bleached. By the time we were getting winched up, the shoes were dead. (South Cali Coast, the breakers are big in the little finger coves, so they launch boats by swinging them over and dropping them, kind of like, well, launching landing craft or ship's boats off of Normandy...)

    Yeah, fun times. Behold the power of a good Yack-attack.

    Glad our Germans made it to dry land. Drowning in a cold river does not sound like a pleasant way to die.

    And now I wonder how long those pontoon bridges lasted? I mean, many of the big bridges didn't get rebuilt for years, or so I think I remember. All that bridge wreckage, must have played hell with any water traffic for years.

    1. That would make for an interesting study. No doubt some academic has already written that book and made it so boring that no one would ever read it.

  4. They fight on, but are really running for their lives at this point. Did we have air superiority at this point in the war? If so, "orders to Poll" and other locales were lucky to get through to them, as we were likely pounding their leadership.

    1. We had air supremacy at this stage of the war.

      Movement during daylight hours was a big problem for the Germans.

      A wise German commander made sure his antennae farm was nowhere near his actual HQ. We would hit communications facilities whenever they were detected. Command and control is always a high value target.

      Another problem the Germans had was relying on their teletype system for transmitting orders, the Allies were reading most of that traffic during the war.

      Getting orders through could be a nightmare, Allied fighters would go after individual vehicles. A lot of tactical orders were transmitted by motorcycle messengers, and yes, Allied aircraft would go after them as well. If it moved on the German side of the lines, it was fair game.

  5. Those pontoon bridges were an engineering feat, just as the Mulberry harbors at D-Day. Wonder howe long it took to bridge the Rhine? Wasn't the German commander at Remagen shot? (although Robert Vaughn didn't make a very good Nazi)

    1. Four German officers were convicted by a flying court martial, one in absentia, for dereliction of duty at Remagen. There were shot by a bullet to the back of the head.

    2. (Don McCollor)...From "The Bridge at Remagen" the 51st Engineer Combat Battalion and the 291 Engineer Combat Battalion started on a treadway bridge and a heavy pontoon bridge under artillery fire March 10. Construction time for the treadway bridge was 32 1/2 hours. Pontoon bridge was 29 1/2 hours.

    3. Combat engineers, unsung heroes!

    4. That is amazing to build that bridge in 29 hours. They are unsung heroes.

    5. "unsung heroes"? I for one can attest that my Dad, an infantryman himself, didn't have enough words to sing the praises of those guys, always remarking how unappreciated they were by the general public and scant mention by Hollywood & TV.

    6. That would be the unsung part, the guys who knew them knew their worth.

  6. Germans at Remagen threw everything and the kitchen sink at the bridge after the capture - what few bombers Luftwaffe could fly still, frogmen miners, and even V-2 rockets used only time against tactical target. Only classical artillery did any real damage though, but by the time Allies had multiple pontoon bridges operating. Eventually the ludendorff bridge collapsed due to shelling, strain of use and earlier bombing damage, but allies had major bridgehead created and secured by that time.

    1. (Don McCollor)...I have an old 1943 copy of TM 5-277 'Fixed Steel Panel Bridge Bailey Type" for smaller rivers (up to 180 feet) (a British design). The same components could be assembled in five different combinations according to span and expected load like a giant Erector Set. The most complex could be assembled in 7 hours in daylight, 9 hours in blackout...

    2. (Don McCollor)...There is a scene in "A Bridge Too Far" where the Americans erect and launch a single-single (configuration) Bailey. Even stranger was the British 'Swiss Roll' used at Normandy. A rolled up contraption of timbers and canvas that floated flat on the water held by tensioned cables from unloading pierhead to shore (vehicle limit only seven tons). When a vehicle drove onto it, it sank down and the sides folded up forming a boat-like pod that followed the vehicle as it drove toward shore. One the weight came off, it went flat again and drained any shipped water...

  7. Once - once - I had the dubious pleasure of being on the North Atlantic in late Autumn with the pitch of the boat at 20 degrees (it felt like 90 degrees) due to wind and wave. Never again.

    Glad everyone made it across. I now almost dread turning to the next installment every day. You have made me care about these people Sarge.

    1. Thank you, I consider that to be great praise.


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