US infantry v Panzers in house to house fighting

Churchill tanks of 6th Guards Tank Brigade carrying paratroopers from the American 17th Airborne Division pass through Dorsten in Germany, while an Achilles tank destroyer waits, 29 March 1945.

Churchill tanks of 6th Guards Tank Brigade carrying paratroopers from the American 17th Airborne Division pass through Dorsten in Germany, while an Achilles tank destroyer waits, 29 March 1945.

Churchill tanks of 6th Guards Tank Brigade carrying paratroopers of the 17th US Airborne Division, Germany, 29 March 1945.

Churchill tanks of 6th Guards Tank Brigade carrying paratroopers of the 17th US Airborne Division, Germany, 29 March 1945.

The penetration into Germany was now proceeding on a broad front, with the British, Canadian and US Armies all involved in daily battles, large and small.

Raymond Gantter had arrived in France in September 1944 as a replacement private with the US 1st Infantry Division. A relatively old man at 30 years old, by March 1945 he was a sergeant in charge of a platoon.

He devotes a whole chapter to the fighting his Company was involved in throughout 28th March, the battle for the small town of Geisbach. He began the day with a pre – dawn reconnaissance with a small squad to find the way into the town for the whole Company. Shortly after the Company arrived, as they were clearing the the town from house to house, a group of Panzers and self propelled guns arrived and the situation was reversed. They had stumbled upon a marshalling area for German armour preparing a counter-attack.

With an honesty that is typical of of his memoir, he describes how his men fell back in retreat, out of his control. On meeting his Company commander he was ordered back into town, at which point two of his men fell out with “battle nerves”. The day was far from over:

The platoon now consisted of fourteen men, and I formed two squads of seven men each. The captain and I walked to the edge of the road and he pointed out where he wanted us to go. He talked easily and warmly, saying it was a dirty job but it had to be done, and the curse on my conscience lightened a little. I had the choice of returning by the road, risking fire from the enemy-occupied buildings, or going back the long way, up the creek. The road was the shorter route, and I chose that.

A last checkup of weapons and ammo and we were off, snaking from building to building and moving steadily back to the junction and the walled courtyard. It was a happy return: Shorty was there. He was in the cellar of the house with a weapons platoon survivor named Johns who was a helluva good Joe. It was good to see Shorty. En route to the creek he’d found his way blocked by the guns of an S.P. and he’d been forced to crawl back to the house. He and Johns had stuck it out alone there, almost entirely surrounded by Germans. We maneuvered into position, a few men at this vital point, a few men at that. We were back at our old stand on the company’s left flank. The remnant of the third platoon was on our right.

The hours that follow are blurred and lost. The things I remember are vivid with the clarity of nightmare, real enough in the physical terms of their expression but terrifying through distortion, twisted and hideous because some fundamental discipline had been violated. There was shelling and there were tanks and self-propelled guns, the rattling cough of machine guns and burp guns, the high staccato of rifles.

These provided the orchestration for certain tableaux: dusty glimpses of gray uniforms, green uniforms… the flicker of movement in the window of the house across the street, and your hands swinging the rifle to your shoulder in a single fluid motion … the patient resistance of the trigger under your tightening finger, the sudden punch of recoil… the stone barn and the thorny hedge… the dead soldier who lay on his face in the ditch, his hand stretched to the gray stone, the blackthorn. His head was bare and he was very blond, very young… the nape of his neck as defenseless as a child’s. On the edge of the road lay his bazooka… so near, only a grave’s length away.

The Germans were all over: in the houses across the street, in the house next door, in the fields and orchards. They were sure of their victory now, and a little careless.

Glancing up the road, I spied two Germans less than a hundred yards away. They were sprawled carelessly in the ditch near the junction, a light machine gun mounted beside them. They were smoking cigarettes with an air of indolent assurance. At my wave, Lieutenant Freeman joined me at the comer of the barn; we chose targets wordlessly and fired.

The enemy was now solidly entrenched in the houses across the road. A little below us the road bent sharply, curving into the heart of town, and the large building at the bend in the road was infested with snipers.

Peering around the dung heap that sheltered me, I studied the windows of the house, hoping for an incautious German to show himself.

Suddenly a German soldier ran from the courtyard, disappearing around the bend in the road before I could raise my rifle. Cursing my slowness, I waited for another German to make a move. Fifteen seconds later a second man sprinted from the courtyard, and my finger was already tightening on the trigger when I realized that this man was American. He was empty-handed and his head was bare, and before he vanished around the bend in the road I recognized him as Weymeyer, a third platoon man. But what the hell… ? As I blinked in startled wonder, another German darted from the courtyard and after Weymeyer, and again I was caught with my sights down.

I heard the story later: Weymeyer had been captured, dis-armed, and ordered to follow the first German to the place where American prisoners were being collected. Somewhere beyond the bend in the road Weymeyer had overtaken the first German. Seizing his erstwhile captor’s rifle, he beat him to death with it and escaped before the second guard reached the scene. (Weymeyer was sent to OCS in Paris, and his boldness became a company legend.)

Another incident of the day: a German tank rolled up to a house where a few stubborn Americans still held out and thrust the muzzle of its 88 in the front window. The tank commander stood in the open turret and in perfect English made a speech to the doggies within, advising them in tones of good- humored cajolery to come out and surrender peaceably “because you’re already whipped and you’ll only get killed if you continue to fight.”

While he wooed them, they left quietly by a rear window, crawled to the house next door, and shot him as he harangued the empty building. (I talked with some of these men later: they were cocky with triumph but still bristling at the recollection of the German officer’s arrogance. “The nerve of that sonofabitch!” they said. “The nerve… !”)

See Raymond Gantter: Roll Me Over: An Infantryman’s World War II .

A Sherman Crab crew of 1st Lothians and Border Horse Yeomanry share a brew with American 16 Corps engineers, Germany, 28 March 1945.

A Sherman Crab crew of 1st Lothians and Border Horse Yeomanry share a brew with American 16 Corps engineers, Germany, 28 March 1945.

{ 0 comments… add one now }

Leave a Comment

Earlier in the war:

Later in the war: