The Italian Front had become rather neglected after D-Day in Normandy. If the Allies did not have the strength to break through, after the diversion of troops to France, they were still holding down significant German forces.
One man had a particular affection for Italy, official War Artist Edward Ardizzone. In January he returned for another visit. There was much that he could have covered and there was no requirement for him to visit the front lines, yet he seems to have been under some personal obligation to do so:
11th January Thursday
Idle morning by the Mess fire trying to warm up after another cold and sleepless night. To the Guards Brigade in the afternoon. Heavier firing as we passed. Pack mules slipping and sliding on the icy road. Arrive about tea, find them very comfortably established in a big farmhouse.
Shells drop nearby in the evening and an officer is wounded. Luckily not too seriously, but when he was brought into the Mess and laid on the sofa he was grey, speechless and sweating with shock. Touching concern of his batman.
Later the M.O. arrives with ambulance and after a first aid dressing to leg and back he is taken away. Sit next to the Brigadier at dinner, which was really wonderful, the best I have had in Italy, the Brigade H.Q. having discovered a wonderful woman cook. Sleep well and am warm for the first time for four nights.
12th January Friday
The Brigadier and his aide take me with them on their visit to Company and Battalion posts in the mountains — a tremendous walk through deep snow and up icy slopes which nearly kills me. Realise how unfit I am. At one moment thought I would have to give up.
Posts usually in small, grey mountain farmhouses, but the highest, on a great snow’ ridge, consisted of holes dug in the hillside covered with tarpaulins. Another a combination of holes and a burrow in a ruined farmhouse.
We are dressed in snow suits of white linen, as much of the way under observation. Finally We reach an A.D.S. in a small farmhouse where we collect a jeep and travel by an appalling steep and bumpy track, deep with snow and ice, down to the river. We cross by a footbridge and the last short walk home was precipitous and awful. Being tired I fell over at least half a dozen times.
Although battles raged in the Ukraine and in Budapest much of the Eastern front was relatively quiet. The rapid Soviet offensive that had pushed into Poland in the Autumn had paused over the winter. Stalin was building up an even more enormous force before his final push into Germany itself.
German intelligence was well aware of the impending threat, although much of the information was discounted by Hitler and the High Command. In fact there was little they could do about it anyway. What little spare resources that could be found had been diverted for the last desperate push in the Ardennes. Now that last hope appeared to be faltering.
The Red Army was nearly ready to strike. Nicolai Litvin was currently the staff driver for the 352nd Rifle Division:
About 5 January 1945, the commander of the 65th Army, Colonel General P. I. Batov, paid a visit to our division. Together with Dzhandzhgava [commander of the 352nd], they went to examine the place that had been designated for the breakthrough of the enemy’s defenses in the coming offensive.
The generals were dressed in sheepskin coats and wearing simple officer’s caps on their heads. There were no shoulder straps on their coats. The adjutants remained at the divisional command post while I drove the officers to the front lines. As I drove, the generals talked about the forthcoming offensive, about the preparations for it, and about possible start dates.
I overheard Batov telling Dzhandzhgava: “You know, some Americans in the Ardennes have turned chicken and buggered of nearly 300 kilometers to the rear. Churchill has asked Stalin, ‘For God’s sake, start your offensive sooner.’ We’ll have to start our offensive a week earlier. We must have everything ready.” In this way, I learned that the Stavka had moved up the start date for our offensive.
I returned to the jeep and waited, while the generals made their observations, then walked around the trenches, bunkers, and gun pits, checking out the soldiers’ readiness and morale. While I waited, I sat down with some fellows and told them, “You know, there’s a commotion back at divisional headquarters. Someone is firing at the Germans, but neither our scouts nor the Germans can figure out where the firing is coming from.”
I looked at them. The guys in the group exchanged glances, grinned, and then took me to show who was firing. When the Germans had retreated, following their early October attack, we took over some of their positions and combined them into our new defensive line.
Some soldiers found a place where a few German “Vaniushi” had been positioned, six-barreled rocket launchers that brayed like donkeys when they hurled their rounds toward us. As soon as we heard the distinct sound of a “Vaniusha” firing, we immediately shouted, “Brothers, a donkey! Take cover!” This meant that rockets were now headed our way, and that soon there would be explosions.
When the Germans had retreated, they had left behind piles of these rockets — it seemed, as many as had been delivered to the position. Our soldiers had found them and thought to give them a try. They would take a rocket, lay it on the breastwork of the trench, and then fire at this percussion cap at the base of the rocket with their avtomat [automatic rifle]. The rocket would explode, and the shell would fly off in the general direction of the German lines. Therefore the Germans could not figure out from where the fire was coming.
When the generals had returned from their visit to the front line, I told them about the “disturbers of the peace.” General Batov said, “Well, show us.” The guys and their sergeant showed them on the spot how they “fired” the rockets. Batov said, “I don’t have anything in my pocket. I only have this Order of the Red Star. I award it to the sergeant for coming up with this ‘technique’ of harassing the enemy. Award the remaining troops yourself, Vladimir Nikolaevich [Dzhandzhgava], under your own authority”
I returned to the Willys [Jeep], and the generals came back later, at sunset, and we headed back to the 354th’s command post.
The German Nebelwerfer (“Smoke Mortar”) had been developed before the war while German armament developments were restricted by the Versailles Treaty. Although it did fire smoke mortars for use on the battlefield, right from the start it was also capable of firing high explosive and poison gas missiles – matters that were concealed from international observers. The psychological effect of the sound of a battery of Nebelwerfers being fired during the Blitzkrieg was regarded as a particular asset of the weapon.
Contemporary German film of the Nebelwerfer in action:
The town of Metz lies on the French German border, and had lain within both countries during the preceding century, and had been heavily fortified by both countries. The Germans had occupied it in 1940 and it had again reverted back to German territory. Now Hitler saw it as a fortress city to be defended to the death, a major obstacle to the Allied advance into Germany.
After the U.S. Third Army had raced across France they had suffered a frustrating time as the Allied supply lines stretched out and they lacked the fuel and the ammunition to push forward. Once they were ready to go again they faced another frustration – the wet climate of north west Europe’s winters. The scene was set for a miserable and bloody confrontation, one that would continue to frustrate the Army commander, George S. Patton:
I woke up at 0300 on the morning of November 8, 1944, and it was raining very hard. I tried to go to sleep, but ﬁnding it impossible, got up and started to read Rommel’s book, Infantry Attacks.
By chance I turned to a chapter describing a ﬁght in the rain in September, 1914. This was very reassuring because I felt that if the Germans could do it I could, so went to sleep and was awakened at 0515 by the artillery preparation.
The rain had stopped and the stars were out. The discharge of over seven hundred guns sounded like the slamming of so many heavy doors in an empty house, while the whole eastern sky glowed and trembled with the ﬂashes.
I even had a slight feeling of sympathy for the Germans, who must now have known that the attack they had been fearing had at last arrived. I complacently remembered that I had always “Demanded the impossible,” that I had “Dared extreme occasion,” and that I had “Not taken counsel of my fears.”
At 0745, Bradley called up to see if we were attacking. I had not let him know for fear I might get a stop order. He seemed delighted that we were going ahead. Then General Eisenhower came on the phone and said, “I expect you to carry the ball all the way.”
Codman, Stiller, and I immedi- ately drove to the Observation Post of the XII Corps, but there was so much artiﬁcial fog and smoke from the pots covering the bridges that we could see little. At about 1000, ﬁghter-bombers appeared in force and attacked the known enemy command posts. The day was the brightest and best we had had for two months.
I visited the Headquarters of the 80th, 35th, and 26th Divisions and also saw General Wood. By dark that night every unit was on its assigned objective for the day; unfortunately it started to rain.
The character of the war in north west Europe was now changing rapidly. The swift advances of the Allies had come to an end and both the British and the Americans found themselves engaged in bitter slogging matches against determined German defenders. The shorter, dark days and cold wet weather was to make for a miserable experience for all involved.
Battery Sergeant Major Ernest Powdrill describes life on the front line in Holland.
The weather was appalling, the drenching rain was intense and the days were permanently dark. It was bitterly cold. The locality was wooded and gloomy, the enemy were around us in some considerable numbers and the area was extensively mined. South of Oploo was not a comfortable position to be in, but there was no alternative.
On the night of 14th – 15th October Powdrill had to go forward with supplies for the Forward Observation tank, referred to as the RDon, which was concealed on the edge of woods, much closer to the enemy. He went forward in a carrier with Driver Smith:
… easing his way slowly in the dark night in first gear, through the wood along this narrow track, past a lone, empty cottage on the left that was probably the forester’s accommodation in normal times, and stopping just short of the edge of the wood where RDon was hidden in the trees and well camouflaged.
We managed a pleasant hour yarning about various incidents and drinking a mug of hot sweet tea, but still very conscious of the proximity of the enemy. We were a little apprehensive, too, as we had to manoeuvre our way back in the dark through the minefield.
We managed it by being extra careful, sometimes stopping for me to have a closer look by getting out and examining the ground in front (it was possible to walk over some German mines because the human body did not have sufficient weight to set them off — a tank or a Bren carrier was a different matter).
We eventually got back to the guns, safe and sound, thankful that it was not our job to spend the spooky night up there, although our gun position was not exactly a safe haven. I had only been back at the guns about an hour when an order came for the journey to be repeated, the reasons for which I forget. I was engaged in some task or other at the Command Post and a newcomer, Second Lieutenant Patrick Delaforce, a very young officer, was ordered to undertake the task.
He took my Bren carrier, with Driver Smith at the wheel, and I briefed Patrick on the route to go so as to avoid the mines. He had been given different orders, however, that required a change from the route I had taken. Naturally those orders took precedence over what I had to say and I was pleased that Driver Smith was going, as he was conversant with some of the risks.
Unfortunately, the changed route apparently had not been reconnoitred and the inevitable happened — the carrier was blown up on a mine. Driver Smith was killed instantly, his left leg torn off at the thigh. Patrick was injured, sustaining a severe head wound (he told me years later that he still has a piece of metal in his head).
RDon’s crew at the sharp end heard the explosion and, fearing the worst, conveyed this sad news to us over the wireless. Lance Bombardier Muscoe and I immediately ran about half a mile along the track, oblivious of the mines, to the scene of the tragedy. The carrier was laid on its side, with Driver Smith’s torn leg still on the clutch pedal, his body some yards away, having been pulled clear by RDon’s crew. He lay lifeless under a blanket.
We looked around in the dark night, out of sight of the Germans nearby, who must also have heard the explosion, amidst the proliferation of mines, for some suitable place to bury him. We were near to the forester’s empty cottage and the only place we could dig a shallow grave without undue disturbance from the enemy was, incongruously, by the front door of the cottage, just where a doormat might have been placed. We buried Driver Smith, said a few words over him and forlornly made our way back.
Patrick, I think, was attended to by RDon’s crew. Back at the guns, everyone anxiously wanted to know what had happened and there was great sorrow as Driver Smith was a popular member of the Troop. He was also one of the two oldest among us, having a wife and a young daughter at home.
Although Brussels had been liberated, there were still quite a few corners of France where the Germans held out. The port of Le Havre was surrounded but the German defenders were determined to hold out. Now the Highland Division were building up to an attack from the north of the town. It was to be another French town which suffered terribly at the hands of Allied bombers and artillery.
Charles Swaab, a Royal Artillery officer, had recently been appointed to the role of Forward Observation Officer. This meant going forward as far as possible and directing artillery fire in support of infantry attacks – in his case a forthcoming attack by the Black Watch once the R.A.F. had made their contribution. With bad weather arriving he had an uncomfortable time adjusting to his new role:
I want to write up yesterday fully, so that in days to come if I am ever tempted to say of all this ‘It wasn’t so bad’, I have at least one reminder of an occasion when it bloody well was so bad!
The day really started on the evening of the 6th, when after hanging about for hours waiting for instructions, I was told that owing to an R.A.F. programme, I should not man the O.P. at frst light, but no sooner had I returned to the carrier than I was told we had to be ready at 0630. OK. I warned the crew and the guard and went to bed. It was raining and some was dripping in so I turned my bed around.
At 0240 hours there was a sudden awful gush of water and about 3 gallons of it poured into my trench. The cover had collapsed. The trench was quite soon 9 inches deep in water. The next half hour was true nightmare. Somehow I got dressed into wet clothes, got my bedding into the soaking Jeep (it was still raining hard) and huddled into the front of a 15 cwt wrapped into wet blankets till 0600.
At 0630 we set off for the O.P. still in the pelting rain, and eventually after scrounging a little breakfast from the infantry manned it about 0830 with an infantry platoon as local protection. Prior to this I went up with the B.C. before daylight proper. By then I was of course quite drenched. We had to leave the carrier about 1/2 a mile back and carry phones, remote control etc. up to the O.P. ourselves.
The O.P. was in an orchard and gave a good view of the Boche defences round Octerike [Octeville-sur-Mer] which are very numerous and formidable. I need hardly say that to crown everything the local weather and one thing and another made communications almost impossible, as the phones kept breaking down and something was wrong with the wireless.
At 1500 we retired for an R.A.F. bombing which never took place (still raining furiously) and after a cup of tea went out with the relief platoon about 1730. We also had a tin of M & V [Meat and Vegetables] which tasted unusually good. Well, it went on raining till near darkness (Alistair C. came up to the same place to man the 126 O.P.) so we went in. We were mortared twice by our own mortars and shelled once by our own guns but otherwise it was a quiet enough day.
We knocked off 3 chickens and 2 lbs of sugar from a deserted farm.
When I got back Findlay had dried my blankets and sleeping bag, put me out a clean pillow case and made up my bed in a loft (my new safari camp bed arrived from the Hornseld people of Croydon on the 6th) and at 2300 after a wonderful cup of tea, and issue of rum, I took off all my wet things and fell straight asleep — god how good it was — and the last sound I heard was the rain beating on the roof.
As the German situation in both the East and the West grew more serious Hitler was to make increasingly desperate demands upon his forces. He had always been reluctant to allow retreats. Now he was to insist that certain locations were to be turned into “fortresses”, defensive citadels where his troops were expected to fight to the last man, holding up the general advance of the Allies for as long as possible. There were still plenty of fanatical Nazis prepared to follow such orders.
As the U.S. forces swept through Brittany they were to encounter a series of such fortresses established in the ports which might assist the Allies bring men and munitions straight onto the European continent. Cherbourg had not held out nearly as long as Hitler had hoped, although the port infrastructure had been so badly damaged it was of limited use to the Allies. Elsewhere the Germans held out for rather longer and the U.S. Third Army’s attempts to winkle them out were to cause extensive damage to these ancient towns. However, not all of the defenders proved to be as fanatical as Hitler hoped.
‘Festung St Malo’ surrendered on 17th August after a fortnight of hammering by bombs, artillery and mortars. Everywhere lay destruction – only 182 buildings out 865 still stood. Journalist Montague Lacey was present, covering events for the Daily Express:
A few minutes before four o’clock this afternoon, the German commander of the Citadel, Colonel von Auloch, the mad colonel with a monocle and a swaggering walk, led 605 men from the depths of his fortress and broke his promise to Hitler that he would never give in to the Americans. The colonel goose-stepped up to surrender, with a batman carrying his large black suitcase, and another in attendance round him flicking the dust from his uniform, and as they went by an American soldier called out: “What a corney show!”
Colonel von Auloch is the man who wrote to the American commander attacking the Citadel to say that a German officer never surrenders, and for 15 days he sat tight 60 feet below ground in the safety of his underground shelter. By tonight the Americans would have been sitting on top of his fortress, which would have become a mass grave for all the men in it. By holding out, Colonel von Auloch has not affected the course of the war one jot. What he has done is to cause the almost complete destruction of the old town of St. Malo, and sow further seeds of hatred in the hearts of the French.
Even as I write, the townspeople gathered in the Place above are shouting and shaking their fists at the Germans from the Citadel. As the Germans pile into trucks to be taken away, the older men somehow look ashamed and stupid, but the young Germans are still grinning and arrogant. The Citadel fell dramatically just an hour before American infantrymen were ready to assault the fortress for the third time, and just as a squadron of Lightning bombers swept in to shower incendiary bombs on the place.
All last night and throughout this morning heavy guns had pounded the Citadel, a main blockhouse surrounded by about a dozen entrances from the mine-like caverns below. The Americans ate their lunch in the wrecked streets before they formed for the attack. At 2.30 p.m. a big white flag appeared on one of the pillboxes. No one took much notice, for at 3 o’clock a fighter-bomber attack was to be laid on. Soon after 3 o’clock the first Lightning swept in. It came down to 50 feet and planted a couple of incendiaries square on top of the Citadel. More white flags were then run up – there were now five flying in the breeze.
The pilot of the second bomber saw them and dived without dropping his bombs. But he opened up his guns as a sort of warning as he flew round followed by the rest of the squadron. The airmen waited long enough to see a batch of Germans come from the Citadel and a bunch of Americans walk up the hill to the front carrying a coloured identification flag.
Now there was a mad scramble to the Citadel. Word soon went round that the Germans had surrendered. Everyone raced down the hillside to see the sight. First out was Colonel von Auloch still barking orders to his officers and men who were almost tumbling over themselves to obey. Two senior officers were with him, one of them a naval commander. They were all trying to make an impressive display in front of the Americans.
Then a curious thing happened. An elderly German, a naval cook, broke ranks and ran up and embraced a young American soldier. The German was lucky not to be shot and the guards lowered their guns just in time. But no one interfered when the U.S. soldier put his arms round the German. They were father and son. The German spoke good American slang and was allowed to stay out of the ranks and act as interpreter. He had been 14 years in American, he said, and went back to Germany just before the outbreak of war.
Colonel von Auloch counted all his men as they filed out carrying their belongings. There were Poles amoung the party, some Russians and about a dozen Italians. Still shouting orders, Von Auloch was put in a jeep and driven away to Division Headquarters. He refused to talk about his surrender and so did his soldiers.
Down in the labyrinth of tunnels of the Citadel there was the usual destruction and signs of panic. Clothing and equipment were strewn all over the place. There was still plenty of food, water and ammunition – and the usual heaps of empty bottles.
Colonel von Auloch’s room was in the lowest and safest part of the fort. It was about eight feet by ten feet, and furnished only with two leather armchairs and a bed. It seemed to be the only room with a wash basin and running water.
On the desk stood an electric lamp and a telephone; nearby was a tray containing coffee, and two postcards which the colonel was about to write. I have one of these cards now. It shows a picture of Goering and Hitler smiling as they ride through cheering crowds. On the back is the stamp which the colonel had just stuck on – a beautiful pictorial stamp of a fortress castle.
The big guns of the fort were wrecked, and all the Germans had left were machine-guns and other small arms. With the prisoners who came out of the Citadel was a little party of American soldiers who had been captured last Friday. They had crept up to the fortress at night with explosives in an attempt to wreck the ventilation system.
When all surrendered garrison had been driven away or marched away, several hundred French people gathered round shaking each other by the hand, cheering and singing their national anthem. And one day, soon perhaps, the Citadel where the mad colonel surrendered will be one of the sights the people of St. Malo will point out to visitors coming here again from England for their holidays.
The 2nd Battalion/120th Infantry Regiment was still holding off the German counter-attack outside Mortain on Hill 314. They had sustained heavy casualties but the Germans had not been able to move them off the hill – from where they were directing US artillery fire from further back. It was known that they had many wounded and they were short of food, medicine and, crucially, batteries for the radios.
An attempt was being made to parachute supplies into them – but they occupied a narrow position jutting into the German lines. The US artillery now worked up an innovative solution, they would attempt to fire medical supplies into the position – by putting the supplies inside artillery shells.
Lt. Ralph A. Kerley, Co. “E” Commander on Hill 314, describes the final two days:
Although the air drop had been scheduled for 10 August, the men on the Hill had little hope for success. The morning had been spent in comparative quiet. At approximately 1530 hours, a group of our fighter planes appeared and they dive bombed and strafed several enemy areas, starting fires and explosions. After they had accomplished their mission, they circled and came in low over the battalion positions.
The men on the Hill jumped for their fox holes, fearing that the fighters had mistaken our positions for that of the enemy. Their fears were false however. At 1600 hours, the fighters returned, escorting a flight of C-47’s. Possibly the most beautiful sight the men had ever seen, was the multicolored parachutes lazily floating down.
Approximately one half of the drop landed far into the enemy lines, but at least, the battalion had some food, ammunition and a limited amount of medical supplies. One of the most important items contained in the drop was radio batteries. A report was made to regiment of the drop and an attempt to schedule another drop was made, especially for medical supplies.
In the meantime, the S-3 of the 230th Field Artillery Battalion had an idea to relieve the situation. Ten rounds of M-84 (base ejection HC smoke)) ammunition were opened, and the smoke canisters and base ejection charge removed. The rounds were then filled with medical supplies, bandages, dressings, sulfanilamide and morphine syrettes.
The steel disc in the nose was replaced to prevent the fuze, when detonated, from ruining the contents. Four other shells were treated likewise, and were filled with sand to approximately the same weight. These rounds were to be used for adjustment.
The S-3 them made his intentions known to the men on the Hill and gave instructions for opening the projectiles. The adjustment was completed at approximately 2130 hours, and the medical rounds were then fired. None of these rounds were recovered due to ricochets and darkness.
Even though the medical supplies were badly needed, the presence of food and ammunition served to raise morale to a new high.
11 August: Enemy Withdrawal
As soon as the mist lifted on 11 August, the artillery again attempted to fire in medical supplies. Six rounds were fired and all were recovered. This operation was only partially successful, however, the concussion being too great for the containers of the morphine and plasma.
Enemy traffic towards the east was increasing, with very little traffic towards our lines.
Evidently the enemy was starting a withdrawal. With communications reestablished with regiment and the artillery, the battalion was able to inflict untold damage on the withdrawing columns. Several air strikes were requested, and were carried out at what seemed to be all at the same time.
The Air Corps pounded the enemy columns unmercifully, and the burning enemy columns could be seen for miles in all directions. This slaughter continued all day.
During the night, the major enemy foot elements started their withdrawal. Our artillery plastered every available route of withdrawal and was very effective, as was evidenced by the screams and hysterical cries of the enemy. There was no doubt now that relief was certain, and the battalion rested and listened to the constant singing of the outgoing artillery.
As the US breakout in Normandy grew stronger, Hitler’s demands for a counter-attack that would contain the Allies grew more strident. A month earlier he had received warnings from von Rundstedt and, later, from Rommel, that the situation was untenable. Now the German forces in France were even more depleted, ground down by the Allied attacks and by their inability to replace losses.
The German divisions ordered into battle for ‘Operation Luttich’ were shadows of their former selves. Yet they were now to fight desperately in an attempt to smash through the US lines at Mortain. For a time it looked like the 2nd SS Panzer Division would break through.
Yet on the high ground outside Mortain, on Hill 314, the 2nd Battalion/120th Infantry Regiment held out. They were surrounded by the 2nd SS Panzer Division but they had radios and with these they were able to call in artillery fire from further away to support them.
Lt. Ralph A. Kerley, Co. “E” Commander on Hill 314 and wrote this account of the battle subsequently:
The dawn was accompanied by a dense fog. So dense in fact, that some of the units on the HILL #314, thought that the enemy was smoking the position. By 0800 hours, the sun had burned through the mist and revealed columns of enemy armor and foot troops streaming from the east and southeast.
Whether the enemy was ignorant of the fact that the HILL #314 was occupied, or had simply chosen to ignore it, is not known and really doesn’t matter. His closed formations made a definite target for our artillery. Corps artillery was called in and the casualties and damage to their vehicles was incredible. The undamaged vehicles quickly dispersed and withdrew. The artillery and cannon observers registered additional concentrations, and now a solid ring of artillery fire could be fired on call.
If the enemy had not known before, that the HILL #314 was occupied, he certainly knew it now. Apparently they realized the importance of controlling the hill.
If they gained the HILL #314, not only would they eliminate our artillery fire, but would have excellent observation for miles on our positions.
At approximately 1000 hours, the enemy dumped everything in the book in the line of artillery and mortar fire on our positions, and K and E Companies received a bombing and a strafing attack. The enemy infantry, with some armor, followed the artillery preparation closely. Our own artillery was called on and was very effective in breaking up the attack. The main attack had been broken, but not before the enemy had made a penetration into E Company’s area. A severe fire fight resulted, and finally the enemy was driven out and the lines reestablished. E Company paid a price for this small victory; casualties were high.
See www.30thinfantry.org/Mortain-Operations.doc for the full account
Robert Weiss was the Forward Observer on Hill 314, as the Germans approached that had to scramble down from the very top of the hill to avoid German fire:
To the left, to the north, a crest of golden grasses meandered toward the area from which we had just fled. An occasional small tree and clumps of bushes grew irregularly across the top. To the right of the crags, the Hill dropped away steeply through trees, the Forét de Mortain. At the back, a broken, scraggly cliff reached down sharply into the valley below.
Trees on the fringe of the Forét de Mortain gave the cliffs cover from across the valley. Kerley had moved his command post from the draw down below and was directing the defense of his company position from the vicinity of these crags. In the hours and days that ensued, Kerley’s “management style” became intensely hands-on and personal. Kerley went wherever the situation demanded. The command post moved with him. The headquarters, however, remained where it had been during the early morning counterattack.
This highest point at the southern end of the Hill was the best all-around observation point, the point from which we could inﬂict, by calling in artillery fire, the most damage to the enemy. Like Kerley, we moved from time to time as the pressure of enemy movement and attack seemed to dictate, which meant that we were not always at the infantry command post. But that morning and the rest of the day we stayed close by.
Sasser and I, lugging the radio and batterypack, struggled up a little, grassy funnel that shot steeply down from the northern side of the high, gray crags into the valley below. A fringe of tumbled, broken rock lying in jumbled piles gave the funnel its shape. Below the edge of the cliff, on the backside near the top of the crags, we found an ideal spot for the radio, protected and yet close by so that Sasser could hear me shouting messages from higher up where I could see.
As we set up our OP, German infantry advanced in front of us in closed formations across open fields less than a mile away. Supporting tanks moved on roads and through open areas, some coming within a thousand yards on our right ﬂank.
The troops and armor were not hard to spot as they came toward us. We took them under fire immediately using both time and ricochet fire. Deadly against infantry in the open, time fire used a fuse, which if properly set, would detonate before the shell struck the ground, focusing a hail of steel shards on the target below.
Ricochet fire, especially effective against tanks and vehicles, employed a fuse set so that the shell exploded after impact, letting the shell find a target on the bounce if there was not a direct hit and penetration on impact.
Fire mission followed on fire mission.
Crow this is Crow Baker 3.
Fire mission. Enemy vehicles. Tanks.
Fire Mission. Strong enemy force. Men milling about. Large counterattack.
Fire Mission. Tanks moving across road.
Fire Mission. Tanks in draw.
Again and again, and it was barely noon.
Concentration after concentration of shells exploded over and around the enemy. Little puffs of black smoke and swirls of dust dirtied the landscape, mingled together, and slowly drifted away. The advancing infantry took cover, and the tanks went into hiding for a time. Although we continued to shoot at other targets, principally automatic weapons installations, by two o’clock that afternoon the situation seemed well in hand. The pressure lifted from our infantry outposts. I scanned the terrain through my binoculars without spotting a target.
At such close range, spotting and locating targets and adjusting fire accurately was not difficult. Moreover, I soon knew the terrain by heart. Landscape features, buildings, road junctions, orchards and fields became concentration numbers in my mind, targets on which I could call down artillery fire with almost no delay, or reference points from which to adjust artillery fire to other targets. This capability gave an easy rhythm to the shift from one target to another, and reduced response time. With this technique well honed, my binoculars soon became a gun sight. When I shouted “Fire Mission” to Sasser, it was as if I were tensing my trigger finger, beginning the squeeze to detonation that would send a deadly missile to the target.
It was just the beginning of a desperate six days during which the 2nd Battalion would hold out in isolation against repeated German attacks.
As the US forces burst out of the south of the Cotentin Peninsula, led by George S. Patton, the British forces were still edging forward, hard up against the Panzer forces that still contained the east of the Normandy battlefield.
Battery Sergeant Major Ernest Powdrill describes the situation as the the British forces pushed forward into the German lines. He was the senior NCO of a battery of Sexton self propelled guns. Twice on the 3rd August he abandoned the relative security of the the gun positions and went forward on foot to investigate the position in front. It was for these actions that he was awarded the Military Cross. His account gives a sense of how confusing the battlefield could be:
This position was to be one of the most (if not the most) precarious of positions we had occupied since Operations Epsom and Goodwood. We stayed the night there in some trepidation, deep in enemy territory, literally surrounded by roaming German tanks and infantry.
At 1025 hrs I was informed that enemy tanks were very close and my right section of ‘E’ and ‘F’ gun subsections were withdrawn from an indirect ﬁring role to take up anti—tank positions, shortly to be joined in that role by both ‘Charlie’ and ‘Don’ Troops, such was the imminent danger. We also formed ourselves into some loose infantry sections, although what we were supposed to achieve is questionable since we had no infantry or anti-tank weapons.
Moreover, a Sexton self-propelled gun is not an ideal anti—tank weapon because of its limited traverse. Half of the gun teams crouched low below the sides of the Sextons, whilst the other half dismounted to take up observation positions on the ground, their role to give early warning of approaching tanks or marauding infantrymen.
It was reported that enemy tanks were as near as 200 to 300 yards away, but the close country was such that we couldn’t see them. The guns were loaded with armour-piercing shot, which was a solid lump of metal about the size of a large family loaf, but we were apprehensive. A Sexton was not built for a tank-to—tank battle and the odds would certainly be against us if we actually had to engage in such an affair.
The weather was hot and sunny, with a clear blue sky, and our gun position was in a part of Normandy that would have been idyllic in more peaceful times. The countryside undulated with both high and low crests. The whole was made up of small fields and copses, bounded by narrow lanes, on top of which were thick hedges, so emphasizing a tunnel-like effect, especially in cloudy weather. The quiet country roads were mostly no more than lanes in between fields.
During the first few hours the situation around us was critical, as we expected at any moment to be attacked by tanks, or infantry, or both, but it did not prevent us from engaging in some quick, but intense, shoots.
At 1315 hrs, the Battery was ordered out of its anti—tank role, with the exception of the two right—hand guns that were facing up the lane towards Point 218. Minutes later, at 1325 hrs, the Battery Captain, Captain Peploe, located three Panzer Mk VI (Tiger) tanks nearby and engaged them with our guns firing high—explosive shells. Unfortunately, there was one casualty in this affray (Gunner Beardesley) who was wounded.
Around this time, the regimental despatch rider, came chugging down the lane towards us on his motorcycle. Heaven knows where he had been since his approach was directly from the enemy—held positions. He came to report that the lane seemed to be clear of the enemy (information that proved to be incorrect), but that he had spotted a burning Sexton belonging to some other unit beyond the crest in front of us, and he thought there were some wounded men lying out there.
We decided that the Sexton belonged to the Leicester Yeomanry of the Guards Armoured Division, who were known to be somewhere out on our left ﬂank. For reasons that have always escaped both of us, Lieutenant John Alford and myself either volunteered, or were ordered, to investigate this situation, with a view to rendering some assistance to the wounded.
We were three abreast, shoulder to shoulder — I was in the middle, John on my left and the despatch rider on my right. Then I heard the crackle of a machine gun and the hissing and whistling of bullets. The despatch rider, close to my right shoulder, was hit in the head, killing him instantly. John and I instinctively jumped to our left towards the thick hedge (later reported to be impenetrable) that separated the ﬁeld from the lane, and forced our way through it, landing in a heap at the foot of the earth bank. Breathlessly we took stock, relieved to discover that we had not been hit.
The strategic town of St Lo had been the American objective in Normandy for weeks. Finally they emerged from the hedgerows of the bocage to begin the liberation of the town on the 18th July. It was a scene of devastation, shattered by Allied bombing and shellfire. Now German shellfire added to the destruction, as they fired very close to their own troops in an attempt assist the withdrawal.
Grenadier Karl Wegner had arrived in France in January 1944, along with a group of other 17-18 year old German youths sent to rebuild the 352nd Infantrie Division. After only basic training in Germany the experienced officers and NCOs of the Division, veterans of the Eastern front, had sought to train them as best they could, despite the limitations on the equipment available to them. The young men had formed close friendships, and it was as a group of friends that they fought in St Lo:
Many times our little group had to dive for cover. Kalb was very mad about this and I knew why. The artillery was ours.
We skirted through the city, peering cautiously around every corner or pile of rubble. Often Kalb would look around a corner then pull back quickly, telling us quietly to go the back the other way. It was like a game of cat and mouse and we were the mice. Then it happened, I suppose it was inevitable.
Kalb looked around a corner and was shot at. The bullet hit him in the right hand, but it was only a scratch. I sent off a burst from the machine gun and we bolted down another alley. Kalb was in the lead followed by Willi, Gunther, then myself. We went from the frying pan into the fire.
When Kalb rounded the next corner he ran right into a group of Amis and armoured vehicles. He turned and yelled for us to go back down the alley we just passed. Gunther and I were able to make the turn on the run.
The Amis were reacting by now. Willi was not able to stop quickly enough, he slid forward on the cobblestones because of those damn hobnailed boots. He bumped into Kalb, knocking him down, then tripped over him falling around the corner into the open. Gunfire pierced the air, screams and shouts followed.
Gunther and I got down behind this destroyed wall in a hole made by a shell, we then sprayed mad gunﬁre over our friends’ heads to keep anyone from coming around the corner. I watched Kalb drag Willi by his boots back around the corner. Then by the belt with his good hand he dragged Willi towards us, both toppled over the wall.
Willi’s cries of pain sent shivers down my spine. I gave the machine gun to Gunther and told him to fire at anything that came around that corner. I went to Willi and Kalb, whose bloody hands were placing a second bandage on Willi’s chest. The Wounds were bad, through the lung and stomach. My God how Kalb tried to save him, as if he were his own brother, the look on his face told me that.
I held Willi’s hand and cradled his head in an attempt to calm him. Kalb looked at me and shook his head, Willi was going to die. His face became sunken and lost its colour. He knew he was finished. He stopped shrieking in pain and began to cry, softly. He looked at me with eyes one cannot I describe and said his last; I never forgot it. Willi said to me ‘Karl, through all this just to die in the rubble, it makes no sense.’
Question or statement I didn’t know, either way it struck us both. I held him until he died. The whole event only took a few moments. Willi’s last words may have been the trigger for Kalb’s next action. He took off his helmet and placed it over Willi’s face, then broke off the bottom of Willi’s identity disc. He took this, his watch, medals, wedding ring and the pictures of his family and wrapped it all in his handkerchief, which he thrust down the front of his trousers. No one would look here. He placed his battered cap on his head and told us to do the same.
He took Gunther’s riﬂe, tied a dirty undershirt to it and waved it above the wall. He told us that he would go first, if everything was OK, we should follow. He stepped over the wall with his arms held high. I looked one more time at Willi’s lifeless body lying there in the rubble, then scrambled out into captivity. Thank God it was ﬁnally over