A shattered city – ‘Festung St Malo’ – surrenders

Soldiers of the 83rd Division probe the outskirts of St Malo on the 9th August.
Soldiers of the 83rd Division probe the outskirts of St Malo on the 9th August.

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.

 Oberst Andreas von Aulock of 79. Infanterie-Division (standing in the jeep) taken prisoner by US soldiers, St. Malo, France.© Lawrence Riordan 1944

Oberst Andreas von Aulock of 79. Infanterie-Division (standing in the jeep) taken prisoner by US soldiers, St. Malo, France.© Lawrence Riordan 1944

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 Institute for Historical Review has a post war analysis of the battle and the reasons for the destruction – but see comments below. French site documenting the reconstruction 1944-1966.

US archive footage of the battle for St Malo, shows the artillery assault, infantry entering the city and dealing with snipers, finally the liberated French ands their attitude to the Germans.

A post war aerial shot of the old port of St Malo -where most of the old granite buildings  had been destroyed.
A post war aerial shot of the old port of St Malo – where most of the old granite buildings had been destroyed.

US Army attempt to resupply Hill 314 by air and shell

A US 105mm M3 Howitzer in action in Normandy 1944.
A US 105mm M3 Howitzer in action in Normandy 1944.

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.

See 30th Division for the full account

The awesome power of the 155mm 'Long Tom' artillery piece, Normandy 1944.
The awesome power of the 155mm ‘Long Tom’ artillery piece, Normandy 1944.

US artillery holds German counter-attack at Mortain

A battery of 105mm guns from the US 84th Field Artillery Bn firing from positions on the edge of a Normandy field.
A battery of 105mm guns from the US 84th Field Artillery Bn firing from positions on the edge of a Normandy field.

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.

See Robert Weiss: Fire Mission!: The Siege at Mortain, Normandy, August 1944

Shattered German armoured column from the battle of Mortain.
Shattered German armoured column from the battle of Mortain.

Normandy – a close encounter with Panzers

REME troops with their Diamond T 969A Wrecker working on a disabled Universal Carrier in the centre of Cahagnes, 2 August 1944.
REME troops with their Diamond T 969A Wrecker working on a disabled Universal Carrier in the centre of Cahagnes, 2 August 1944.
Sexton self-propelled gun moving up towards Escoville during Operation 'Goodwood', 18 July 1944.
Sexton self-propelled gun moving up towards Escoville during Operation ‘Goodwood’, 18 July 1944.
Sherman tanks advancing towards Vire, Normandy, 2 August 1944.
Sherman tanks advancing towards Vire, Normandy, 2 August 1944.
Carriers, motorcycles and other transport prepare to cross the River Souleuvre in their advance towards Vire, 2 August 1944.
Carriers, motorcycles and other transport prepare to cross the River Souleuvre in their advance towards Vire, 2 August 1944.
A Sexton 25-pdr self-propelled gun, carriers and jeeps move forward south of Caen, 1 August 1944.
A Sexton 25-pdr self-propelled gun, carriers and jeeps move forward south of Caen, 1 August 1944.

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.

See In the Face of the Enemy: A Battery Sergeant Major in Action in the Second World War

Royal Scots Fusiliers, supported by Churchill tanks, push forward towards St Pierre Tarentaine, 3 August 1944.
Royal Scots Fusiliers, supported by Churchill tanks, push forward towards St Pierre Tarentaine, 3 August 1944.
Churchill tanks carrying infantry advance towards St Pierre Tarentaine, 3 August 1944.
Churchill tanks carrying infantry advance towards St Pierre Tarentaine, 3 August 1944.

Last stand of the Wehrmacht in St Lo

A German photograph of the devastation in St Lo, taken in June or early July 1944.
A German photograph of the devastation in St Lo, taken in June or early July 1944.
A young German soldier surrenders as the US Army approaches St Lo.
A young German soldier surrenders as the US Army approaches St Lo.

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

This account appears in Normandiefront: D-Day to Saint-Lo Through German Eyes.

The scene in St Lo, shortly after the US entry into the city.
The scene in St Lo, shortly after the US entry into the city.

American M10 Wolverine tank destroyer firing near Saint-Lô, France, July 1944
American M10 Wolverine tank destroyer firing near Saint-Lô, France, July 1944

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Japanese Americans hammer Germans in Italy

Lt. General Mark Clark of the 5th Army pins ribbon awards to each member of the 100th Infantry Battalion to designate the Presidential Distinguished Unit Citation. Vada Area, Italy. (27 July 1944)
Lt. General Mark Clark of the 5th Army pins ribbon awards to each member of the 100th Infantry Battalion to designate the Presidential Distinguished Unit Citation. Vada Area, Italy. (27 July 1944)

Whilst thousands of Japanese-Americans suffered internment during the war, many of their sons were determined to to prove their loyalty to the United States. Japanese-Americans troops were not sent to the Pacific theatre, a move that avoided their likely victimisation should they ever get taken prisoner. In Europe predominantly Japanese-American units were to distinguish themselves in a several actions during the last year of the war.

Katsugo Miho was member of the 522nd Field Artillery, 442nd RCT advancing in Italy. On the 5th July they were engaged in the fierce battle for Hill 140 (there was also a battle for Hill 140 in Normandy, the number was simply assigned on the basis of the height of the objective):

This was an extremely critical battle for the 442nd because the Germans had been fully entrenched on this hilltop. You know, the battles in Italy, the American forces were always at a disadvantage, with the Germans always on the mountaintop and the Americans trying to dislodge them from the mountaintop. When you got through with one mountain, they were on the other side of the other mountain, and it was a battle of yard by yard… in Italy, it was really rough because the Germans were always in position with higher ground, and we struggled to dislodge them, yard by yard.

Hill 140 was, as we later learned, it was one of the most fierce battles of our entire campaign.

We never did [experience] that type of intensive firing, the rest of my experience. As an example, in one twenty-four-hour period, July 5 and 6 according to our record, which was at the height of the Hill 140 battle, the three batteries fired 4,500 rounds of cannon fire in support of the infantry.

Time Fire It was at this Hill 140 that the 522nd established its reputation as a time-fire expert. This is when our time firing was so fierce that the infantrymen would tell you that they felt so pitiful for the Germans because they were near enough to hear the Germans crying out because they had no way of hiding from the fierceness of the time fire. And we established our reputation in the field as experts in time fire.

In the ordinary projectile, you would fire, and it hit the ground, impacting on the ground, and bursting. So you almost have to have a direct hit on the person. People can get hurt with shrapnels and all that, but by that time, the Germans are all in foxholes. So as long as they’re in the foxhole, unless you have a direct hit above, in the foxhole, there’s no casualty by the Germans.

But the time fire is a projectile that had a timing fuse on the projectile itself that after the projectile leaves the gun, within so many seconds, it would burst in the air. And in the air, bursting, all the shrapnel would go down to the ground so there’s no protection for the Germans in the foxholes. I don’t think the Germans knew about our proficiency in the time fire up until that point. But it required consistency in setting the fuse on the projectile.

The projectile had a timing fuse which was like the inner working parts of an Elgin watch. We set the fuse by the number of seconds it would burst in the air after it left the gun. I remember it was something like, close to twenty seconds, the average timing was. We would have to set it with a gauge, wrench, that would set it according to the seconds that are on the projectile. Unless we are consistent, that people adjusting the fire could not make it ideally twenty yards above the ground to fire. So between the fire direction center and the gun crew, both of us had to be consistent in order to adjust the fire. Without that consistency, you would not be effective because at some maybe fifty yards up in the air, that would be just about useless.

We had to be consistent so that the fire direction center would work on the consistency of the gun crew. Instead of one setting at nineteen seconds, one setting at eighteen seconds, they have to depend on the nineteen seconds being accurately placed on the projectile itself. This is where our boys took extra care to make sure that we were being correct, doing things according to what it’s supposed to be.

The Hill 140 is a good example [of prolonged shooting causing gun barrels to overheat]. The barrels of our guns became so hot that we had to stop firing. We had to stop firing on A gun to let it cool off a little bit, and the other guns would fire. But it was so hot you couldn’t touch the barrel, you would get burned. Well, we were thinking, how can you [cool the guns]? So we tried a couple of times. What we did was we would lower the gun barrel a little bit and we poured water in the barrel to see if it would help cooling off the gun. But it never did help at all. Basically, the gun was too hot. So we just had to let it idle and cool off by itself. But that’s how bad it was during that 140.

The 105 Howitzer had two legs, which would brace the gun from the recoil. You know, the old World War I guns, it had no recoil, the gun would jump back, and that was the recoil. Remember the pirate ships, you would see the gun, and the gun would be rolling back, ten feet back, and then they roll it back forward. Well the 105 had a recoil system where the gun barrel would recoil. The cannon, which the Cannon Company used, had no recoil. But there was that much of a difference. But that was the short-distance gun.

The 105 had a recoil mechanism, which was a big help.

But as I said, in 140, we were firing so many rounds that the guns had to be always readjusted. We had to brace up the two shovels that we have on the back of the gun and reengage the gun, reregister the gun, because of the fierce firing that we constantly [did], without rest.

As I said, in that twenty-four-hour period, we fired close to five thousand rounds, and you figure, twenty-four hours and five thousand rounds.

Read the whole account at THE HAWAI’I NISEI STORY

Americans of Japanese ancestry of the 100th Infantry Battalion, rest on a street in Leghorn, Italy, after a gruelling Fifth Army advance, which terminated with the fall of this important seaport. (19 July 1944)
Americans of Japanese ancestry of the 100th Infantry Battalion, rest on a street in Leghorn, Italy, after a gruelling Fifth Army advance, which terminated with the fall of this important seaport. (19 July 1944)

Another day in the destruction of Army Group Centre

An image used in Soviet post war propaganda to illustrate the 'fight to the death' when Russia was on the back foot - but actually taken in the summer of 1944 when they on the offensive.
An image used in Soviet post war propaganda to illustrate the ‘fight to the death’ when Russia was on the back foot – but actually taken in the summer of 1944 when they were on the offensive.
Fighting in Belorussia, summer 1944.
Fighting in Belorussia, summer 1944.

In 1941 the Wehrmacht had swept into Soviet Russia with huge encircling thrusts that captured whole sections of the Red Army. The Soviets casualties were appalling and few of the 3 million men taken prisoner that year would survive in captivity. Exactly three years after the Nazi invasion the Soviets launched their largest counter-offensive yet – Operation Bagration.

Now the tables had truly been turned. The overwhelmingly strong Soviet forces smashed into the German Army Group Centre and destroyed it – a series of encircling actions through the remainder of June and July would wreak havoc. German casualties were far in excess of their losses at Stalingrad, the main German forces in the east were effectively broken:

Heinrich Haape describes the death of his regiment:

A new spring and a new summer swept across Europe into Russia and the Red Army launched a mighty offensive against the dogged German Army. On 28 June 1944, 6 Division was encircled near Bobruisk. At their backs flowed the river of Napoleon’s final defeat – the Beresina. And on the other bank, between 6 Division and their homeland, stood the Russians.

The last order was given: ‘Redundant weapons to be destroyed; only iron rations and ammunition to be carried. Code word “Napoleon” – every man for himself.’ The men of Infantry Regiment 18, every man of the proud 6 Division fought like devils. Little Becker fell, so did Oberfeldarzt Schulze. Major Hoke fought and died at the head of his regiment; heavily wounded, he saved his last bullet for himself.

A few crossed the river and slipped through the Russian trap; most died on the banks of the Beresina; a small remnant was captured and marched away into captivity. Perhaps a hundred men, not many more, struggled through the Pripet Marshes and reached their homeland — a hundred from the eighteen thousand men who had marched into Russia under the Bielefeld crest. 6 Division, the heroic Regiment 18, had ceased to exist.

See Heinrich Haape: Moscow Tram Stop, London, 1957

Adolf Hamann
Adolf Hamann served as commandant in occupied Orel (June 1942-August 1943), Bryansk (August-September 1943) and Bobruisk (September 1943-June 1944 ).
Extraordinary State Commission in its report “On the atrocities of fascist invaders in the city of Orel and Orel region,” published September 7, 1943, called Adolf Hamann among the main organizers of the mass murder of innocent civilians.
Captured in early July 1944 , in July 17, 1944 he was part of the mass of German prisoners who were marched through Moscow.
In December 1945, Adolf Hamann was sentenced to death by a military tribunal on charges of causing the death of 96,000 Soviet POWs and 130,000 civilians when in charge of the Bryansk garrison, as well as in the deportation of 218,000 Soviet citizens to work in Germany
Hanged at Theater Square Bryansk December 30, 1945.

The following day Nikolai Litvin was part of a Soviet assault battalion that reached the northwest suburbs of the city of Bobruisk, along the Minsk highway:

The Germans defending Bobruisk were now caught in a noose. Two kilometers from our positions to the east were two small vil- lages. Inside them were the remnants of surrounded hostile forces that had not yet been destroyed. We expected that under the cover of darkness, these Germans would make an attempt to break through to the west, across the Minsk highway and into the woods beyond.

From our positions, a thin belt of woods separated us from a large rye field that stretched to the two villages. We placed our machine gun on a small hillock on the edge of the woods overlooking the highway, so that in case of necessity, we could sweep the high- way with fire in either direction, toward Minsk or toward Bobruisk. In front of our position, a gap in the woods about thirty-five meters wide gave us a clean field of fire toward the rye field, across which the Germans would be advancing.

Suddenly a large column of Germans moved from the village toward the Minsk highway, perhaps 10,000 strong. They were marching in column, as if on a parade ground. The column was 100 to 120 meters wide, and perhaps no less than a kilometer long. It was heading to our left.

There were two vehicles in the middle of the column, each one mounting American Oerlikon guns.7 Most likely, these guns had previously been ours, but we had let them slip into German hands. The guns were pouring fire into our positions. The column apparently planned to break through our lines here, cross the Minsk highway, and pass through the woods we were occupying.

As it approached the highway, the column deployed into a human wave and rushed forward. From our position, the left flank of the German line of advancing men was about 1,200 meters away. We opened fire on the Germans, not permitting them to turn in our direction. The Germans were packed so tightly together, and in such a mass, that it was simply impossible to miss.

When our command found out that a German column was attempting to break out here, they rushed an antitank battery to our support. Twelve cannons unlimbered before the column and began to fire at it over open sights. They fired fragmentation shells first, and then when the German avalanche had approached within range, switched to case shot.

Once they had expended all their case shot, the guns switched to whatever they had remaining, even armor-piercing rounds. The fighting was desperate and continued until nightfall. Having lost perhaps half their force, most Germans fell back to the village. Per- haps 1,500 Germans managed to break through our lines and escape.

On the field of battle remained piles of German corpses and the seriously wounded.

In the morning, we woke up and looked out upon the field of carnage. It was quiet. There was no shooting. The rye field was a mousy color from all the fallen Germans in their field gray uniforms. Their corpses lay piled upon one another. It was another hot day. Our machine gun remained pointed toward the village to where the remnants of the trapped German force had retreated. By 11:00 A.M., a stench began rising into the air.

See Nikolai Litvin: 800 Days on the Eastern Front: A Russian Soldier Remembers World War II. For a review of this memoir see Kansas Press.

Images courtesy Russian War Album

Soviet soldiers in battle on the streets of the city of Polotsk.
Soviet soldiers in battle on the streets of the city of Polotsk.
Soviet mortar platoon firing at the enemy in the area of ​​Baranovichi.
Soviet mortar platoon firing at the enemy in the area of ​​Baranovichi.

Operation Bagration – the Red Army begins its revenge

'Fusilier' infantry  and Panther tank in action somewhere in Russia,1944,
‘Fusilier’ infantry and Panther tank in action somewhere in Russia,1944,
A 'Raupenschlepper' or caterpillar tractor hauls an artillery piece across a river.
A ‘Raupenschlepper’ or caterpillar tractor hauls an artillery piece across a river.

Exactly three years before Hitler had launched Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of Soviet Russia. The Germans had been told they only had to ‘kick in the door’ and the whole corrupt communist regime would collapse, victory would be theirs with a matter of a couple of months.

It hadn’t worked out like that. Two years before the German offensive had got sidetracked into the Stalingrad offensive. One year before the last major German offensive, at Kursk, had come to nothing. They had been falling back ever since.

Now it was the turn of the Soviets to mount a major offensive. The Germans had expected an attack but they did not anticipate the massive assault that was now thrown at them. Despite the appalling losses that they had suffered the Red Army now had well over 3 million men to throw into a broad attack on the German Army Group Centre. Under the weight of this attack the main German forces in Russia would be decimated – suffering far heavier losses than at Stalingrad.

Armin Scheiderbauer had just returned to the Eastern Front after completing his officer training course:

To the north of Vitebsk, where we were, the Soviets began their offensive in the early morning of 22 June. On a front extending 64 kilometres, the IX Army Corps with Corps Detachment D and the 252nd Infantry Division were conducting the defence. There, eight divisions of the Soviet 43rd Army attacked. To those were soon added the first division of the 6th Guards Army.

It was intended to achieve a breakthrough some 25 kilometres wide. Along with the offensive divisions of the Red Army there rolled two armoured brigades into the focal-point of the breakthrough area. The two offensive wedges encountered the right-hand and central sectors of the 252nd Infantry Division.

In the course of the night of 21 June and in the early hours of 22 June, the Russians pushed up nearer and nearer to our position. At 4am the enemy’s heavy barrage began and at 4.20am they attacked on a wide front. Breakthroughs were made in the sector of the 1st Battalion Grenadier-regiment 7 and the Division’s Fusilier battalion.

As I recall, the hurricane broke at 3.05am, on the dot, just as it had in 1941. The fire was concentrated mainly on the main line of resistance. Only isolated heavy-calibre shells dropped in the village. We had long since left our quarters in houses, and were waiting in the cover trenches beside them. I had been woken by the crash of bursting shells after just an hour’s sleep. That action began for me with a thundering within my skull, weakened by schnapps and tiredness.

Towards 5am the battalion received orders to move into the second line, that is, the trench that was planned for that purpose. It was good news, because as soon as the enemy attacked up front, we could expect the fire to be moved to the rear. Then it would be mostly the firing positions, villages, and roads, the position of which had been long established by enemy reconnaissance, that would be under fire.

We moved forward, the bombardment ahead of us and the impacts of heavy-calibre shells behind us. In the event, the Division was divided into two halves. Under its command remained Infanterieregiment 7, the divisional Fusilier battalion, and our 2nd Battalion 472. But of these, the 5th Company deployed on the left, the 1st Battalion, the regimental staff and the whole of Regiment 461 were pushed north-westwards. Even on the next day there was no news whatsoever of the 5th Company. In the meantime the second line had become the main line of resistance and the gap that had opened on the left urgently needed to be blocked off.

Visiting our main line of resistance, Hauptmann Muller and I found an 8.8cm Army anti-tank gun, commanding the road to Lowsha from a clearing in the woods, on which the Russians were bringing up tanks. A T-34 passed by; one shot, and it was in flames. The second followed straight behind it. The next shot hit it, it stopped and from the turret an oil-smeared figure twisted itself out. A third tank came up and drove slowly past its comrades. The number one gunner of our anti-tank gun watched with a tense expression and once again pressed the firing button. Once again the shot scored a direct hit and from the tank the whole turret blew into the air. High flames shot up.

Only two days later, after virtually no sleep, Scheiderbauer was to witness the near disintegration of German units near him. With the Russians pressing hard and their positions still under artillery attack German Landser abandoned their posts to try to get on a goods train leaving for the rear. Only when the Engine was hit by shellfire did the panic end.

See Armin Scheiderbauer: Adventures in my Youth

A half track with a Nebel-werfer.
A half track with a Nebel-werfer.
A flak gun mounted on a half track.
A flak gun mounted on a half track.

Follow up waves arrive on the Normandy beachhead

General Sir Bernard Montgomery passes German POWs while being driven along a road in a jeep, shortly after arriving in Normandy, 8 June 1944.
General Sir Bernard Montgomery passes German POWs while being driven along a road in a jeep, shortly after arriving in Normandy, 8 June 1944.
German prisoners being marched along Queen beach, Sword area, 6 June 1944.
German prisoners being marched along Queen beach, Sword area, 6 June 1944.

The Allies still only had a slim foothold on the French coast. The Germans were stiffening their response, even though Hitler was retaining very significant forces in the Pas de Calais area, waiting for the ‘second invasion’. Those Panzer divisions that were ordered to the front were making slow progress as they encountered the Allied tactical airforces, just as Rommel had predicted.

Jack Swaab was an artillery officer with the 51st (Highland) Infantry Division. He had kept his diary throughout the North African campaign and his unit had then returned to England. They arrived off the coast of Normandy on the 7th June and it was some time before they could get ashore:

8th June 1944

1330, near Bayville: Eventually our L.C.T. cast off at about 2300 just as it was getting dark. We spent the night on her in the harbour. The Skipper, a very decent Sub. Lt. R.N.V.R. gave us stew, pudding and coffee and we spent the night on deck with one blanket. Noisy night with the intermittent air raids. The harbour a mass of coloured flak. One or two bombs too close for comfort. 2 ships set on fire and a huge green fire on the beach.

Up early today and bleary eyed. We had to go about 120 yards in 3 foot 6 of water, but made it O.K. and soon after 9 set foot on the sands of France. (I did remember my promise to C.) The beach was covered (it was low tide) with broken obstacles and ‘drowned’ vehicles. All over the upper beach where they had landed at night tide lay the L.S.T.s, L.C.T.s and multiple other craft looking like the skeletons of prehistoric animals.

Then on inland, where all the houses are smashed, tanks lie broken everywhere and all the usual relics (human and otherwise) of war were on view. The few remaining locals were friendly enough and waved a greeting. Signposting and general organisation first class, and the long line of trucks, halftracks etc. rolled inland on the dusty road almost without pause. Mines were numerous beyond belief.

1740: I had to dash off on Recce as I wrote the above. We are now in action near Revier. Bayeux has fallen to us. Have a bloody headache. Yesterday too. Am taking too many Veganin.

Midnight:

Only now am I able to return to this as we’ve been in action since my last bit. Now, at midnight, I am getting tired. Outside comes desultory shellfire, or a shower of flak as a raider comes over and unloads. I can hear the heavy beat of bombs at the moment. Also one can hear m.g. fire and occasionally a nearby rifle or Sten shot as nervous sentries shoot at shadows — or each other — for snipers are still in evidence.

The Middlesex on our position have already had casualties this way jerry resistance seems to be stiffening according to local reports and he is said to have 2 Armoured Divs. in Caen.

I saw about 200 prisoners being marched back today. Some were very young (16 or so), others fairly old. They did not look cowed, but rather defiant, and were being firmly handled by their Canadian guards.

Among things I noted coming ashore were the lovely fields of wild flowers enclosed by barbed wire and the grim skull and crossbones sign of the word ‘MINEN’ — MINES …a wonderful bunch of huge red poppies growing alongside some white peonies … the dusty roads which made one’s jeep throw up a dust wake like a destroyer.

This is a good position overlooking a bakery and in some trees. My Command Post is in an orchard. Stand to at 0545 tomorrow so I’ll turn in soon for some needed sleep as I had only 3 uneasy hours last night and no shave till 1100.

To hear the radio reports of flowers and joy you’d think this was a carnival. Still it’s good to hear the news bulletins if only through knowing one makes them!

See Field of Fire: Diary of a Gunner Officer

A German prisoner captured by Canadian troops of 1st Battalion, North Shore Regiment, Langrune-sur-Mer, 7 June 1944.
A German prisoner captured by Canadian troops of 1st Battalion, North Shore Regiment, Langrune-sur-Mer, 7 June 1944.
German prisoners of war being held in a tank landing craft beached on Jig Green beach, Gold area, 7 June 1944. In the background is LCT 886 which was heavily damaged on D-Day.
German prisoners of war being held in a tank landing craft beached on Jig Green beach, Gold area, 7 June 1944. In the background is LCT 886 which was heavily damaged on D-Day.
Naval beach demolition party in their jeep, with the driver holding a mine shell removed from the top of an obstacle.7 June 1944, Courseulles

Jack Swaab was travelling in a Jeep, as was Montgomery pictured above.

The Jeep was ubiquitous in Normandy

It fulfilled any number of transport roles for the Allies. For those interested in military vehicles, whether to restore vehicles or to build models, the Landcraft series of publications provides all the information anyone might want and more. Published in 2019 The Jeep: Second World War (LandCraft 1)gives the full history of how the vehicle was developed, much technical detail about its construction and a wealth of original photographs of Jeeps in the field, restored Jeeps, and models.

The Jeep was only 52 inches (1.32m) high. The fold-flat windscreen would become a well-used feature, not least as it reduced reflection from the upright glass, a giveaway to enemy spotters. Some Jeep units even had specially tailored canvas windscreen covers to mount over the windscreen and its frame to eliminate the chance of reection from the glass.

The tilt, or hood was made of fabric dyed as close to olive drab as possible, although some beige hoods have been cited. The canvas hood could easily be folded and its steel hoops collapsed. A hood storage locker was supplied in the cabin. The hood’s material was chemically impregnated with a waterproong compound and with an anti-mildew substance. Fire-resistance came from chemical treatment, but this had a short life when exposed to the elements.

A strong, welded-steel mounting pintle was placed between the seats to provide a mount for guns or even a rocket launcher/ bazooka. Perhaps by accident, it allowed a large degree of elevation for such weapons.

Of note: after D-Day, Jeeps in Normandy and its locale were soon seen with a strange vertically mounted metal ‘post’ standing over five feet high from a mounting and bracing on the front bumper. This was a wire-cutting device that would cut any wires placed at head-height across a road that could decapitate the driver and occupants. This trick was a desperate late-1944 tactic deployed by some German units in France and required a swift, ‘bolt-on’ solution by the Allies after several Jeep crews were killed driving at high speed into such razor-wire traps

The addition of the vertical steel wire-cutter was
a vital life saving device in European and Pacic theatres. It was mounted and braced upon the front bumper and saved manyleep occupants from their enemies sabotage habits.

The last battle for Monte Cassino begins

Third Phase 11 - 18 May 1944: Allied 4.2 inch mortars in action at the start of the final offensive on Cassino.
Third Phase 11 – 18 May 1944: Allied 4.2 inch mortars in action at the start of the final offensive on Cassino.

The Allied hopes for a swift march up Italy had long since evaporated. Instead they had found themselves stuck on the Gustav Line in a bloody stalemate that had become a battle of attrition. The mountains of Italy had proved to be ideal defensive territory, and the Germans had taken every advantage of it.

Ultimately the Allies had the resources to dominate the battlefield. Now 1000 British guns and 600 US guns were brought up to support an attack where the ground forces outnumbered the Germans by three to one.

General Mark Clark, commanding the US 5th Army was amongst many who were watching:

As soon as it was dark a steady movement of troops began behind the 5 Army lines, as well as behind the British Eighth Army lines to the north.

Everything else went on in as near the normal routine as possible. Patrols were out. There was occasional artillery fire. It was just as it had been on the previous evening and for many evenings before.

On the German side everything went on as usual, too, except that they were in earnest about it. We weren’t. We were waiting and preparing for the hour before midnight.

At eleven o’clock about a thousand big guns from Cassino to the sea fired at approximately the same moment, their shells aimed with great care at enemy headquarters, communication centres, command posts, and other vital targets that had been quietly located by air reconnaissance during the previous month.

The ridges in front of 5 Army seemed to stand out momentarily in a great blaze of light, sink again into darkness, and then tremble under the next salvo. It was perhaps the most effective artillery bombardment of the campaign.

It simply smashed into dust a great number of enemy batteries and vital centres; so that for hours after the Germans had overcome the initial shock of an attack where they least expected it they were still confused and unable to establish good centralized direction of their defence lines.

See General Mark W. Clark: Calculated Risk

In the middle of it all was Fusilier F. R. Beacham of the 1st Royal Fusiliers, who were engaged in a river crossing assault as soon as the guns opened up:

Immediately our troops began to place their boats in the water and the first ones started to cross. The shells whined overhead incessantly and it was difcult to hear anything above the din. I saw the first of our troops start to clamber up the fairly short, but steep, bank on the far side and then the enemy replied.

Large mortar bombs started to explode all around us followed, almost immediately, by heavy artillery fire. The enemy infantry opened up with his machine guns and tracer bullets whipped and whanged their way a few feet over our heads. I prepared to return the fire but found that, as our troops were now in my line of fire, I was unable to do so. I could see them reasonably clearly moving forward just across the river and all we could do was to watch as the machine gun bullets arched and swathed across the crossing point.

The enemy had obviously fixed their machine guns to fire on fixed lines so as to cover this crossing point. Had I known where that particular machine gun was located, I could have returned fire if I had positioned myself to the left of the crossing point instead of to the right.

The amount of artillery being fired now by both sides was tremendous and a gradual mist and smoke started to envelop the battleeld. Mortar bombs were continuing to fall all around us. The bullets were flying in droves about us and it was becoming increasingly apparent that I would not be able to return the enemy’s machine gun fire from that position and there was the real prospect that at any moment one of the mortar bombs would find its mark smack in the middle of our backs.

I suggested to Bill that we find somewhere a little bit safer and he agreed. We crawled back a relatively short distance from the bank and found a large shell hole, it still smelt strongly of cordite but on the presumption that no two shells fall in the same place, we stayed put.

The shelling continued unabated and it was whilst we were in this shell hole that we heard a cry for help coming from from somewhere to our right. It was a plaintiff [sic] cry repeating over and over again ‘Help me, I’ve been hit’. We had orders not to stop in the event of anyone getting wounded as they would be dealt with by the Red Cross stretcher bearers. We did not go to the aid of this person and it may well be that he was killed in the continuing enemy bombardment for after a few more minutes, the cries stopped.

This account appears in Michael Carver (ed) Imperial War Museum Book of the War in Italy: A Vital Contribution to Victory in Europe 1943-1945.

A Sherman tank waiting to move forward duirng the battle for Cassino in Italy, 13 May 1944.
A Sherman tank waiting to move forward duirng the battle for Cassino in Italy, 13 May 1944.