Thursday, December 16, 2010

Stand Your Ground, 16 December 1944

         0530hrs, 16 December 1944, near the Our River, Luxembourg. The sudden barrage you and PVT Leroy "Whitey" Schaller witnessed is the opening salvos of what will become known as "The Battle of the Bulge." This is the largest offensive launched against Allied Forces since the Normandy Invasion 7 months before. The German High Command has stripped almost every combat element on the western front of fuel, ammunition, man power, and armor, for this last ditch effort to halt the advance into Germany. Hitler hedged his bets that a quick attack to Antwerp would divide the Allies and force a wedge between the strained relations between the United States and the United Kingdom. The secondary effect of this attack would be to capture the vast supplies being stockpiled behind the front lines. These vital supplies could sustain the spearhead elements setting the conditions for further attacks into the Netherlands or France itself. Massed along the "Seigfried Line," German General Hasso von Manteuffel had the vaunted 6th SS Panzer Army, the experienced Wermacht Fifth Panzer Army, and Seventh Army, between Butgenbach, Belgium and Echternacht, Luxembourg.
          Average GIs that made up Baker Company, 110th Infantry, 28th Infantry Division, billeted near Marnach, Luxembourg, like you, didn't even know what country they were in. The men on your right and left were either bloodied, exhausted, veterans of the Battle of the Hurtgen Forrest or new replacements from the states. Your Division has been placed here to give it a rest from the hard fought campaigns to the north, but not take it far from the front to give experience to the new leaders and Soldiers.
         The music you heard playing around 4 am was, as reported, a diversion to cover the advance of the 2nd Panzer Division's lead elements on the Dasburg Bridge. The strange lights that came on at 0530hrs was an ingenious method by the German Army to light the proper path for the tanks and armored personnel carriers through the confusing tree lined and fog covered routes of the Ardennes Forrest. This gave the effect of street lights to the onslaught. But the APCs and Tanks were the least of your worries. Before the music began, Infantry units, broken down into Storm Trooper elements, had infiltrated behind the thinly spread outposts over watching the Our River. The mission of the 2nd Panzer Division was to penetrate the front lines of the American 28th Infantry Division, surround and destroy the individual strong points, to allow follow on forces to advance on the vital crossroad town of Bastogne, Belgium. You are in the middle of a classic pincer move of "Blitzkrieg" or "Lightning War." Your only hope of surviving is to move through the Infantry Squads swarming your rear and get to Marnach, where your company is poised in a deliberate defense. Now you have to get there....
         Chaos. You are surrounded by total confusion. The 1st squad outpost to your south, the ones who reported infantry to their rear earlier, didn't put up much of a fight. Their field phone call, cut short, and a few distinctive shots from M1s was the last you heard from them. To your west you see the flashes of German artillery pummeling the positions of your 110th Infantry Regiment. In the east, the spotlights of the Luftwaffe shine against the clouds and fog, lighting a wooded lane to your south. Whitey is off in a dash. His M1 Garand held high, ready to spit bullets if any Kraut squads had gotten behind you. You copy his movement but from 10 yards behind. If Whitey gets hit there's no sense in you getting it to. Plus you can cover him incase someone tries to get at him from behind.
         You do have some luck in all of this. The German indirect fire is falling towards "Skyline Drive" The vital north-south route that connects all of the units of the US 1st Army. This means you just have to keep a sharp eye out for Infantry. The Germans don't want to hit their own Soldiers with Mortars and Artillery.
         "Keep your eyes open, Mac. And watch where you step. The engineers planted mines around here a few days ago." Whitey said over his shoulder as he ran.
         Off to your left, you see something, something moving. In the mist you can't quite make out what it is. You slow your pace and look harder. There, not 100 yards from you are ghost like images, dark heads bent low in their march. The Germans are wearing white sheets and smocks giving them the appearance of apparitions. Their dark helmets and boots give their true identity away. This appearance of the enemy makes you quicken your pace.
         In front of you Whitey jumps into a shallow depression in the ground. You follow him in, almost landing on top of his prone body. "Did you see them Krauts over to the south??" Out of breath you knod. "Well welcome to the war, Junior. That's the enemy and we're gonna kill 'em. Or at least slow 'em a little."  Rolling over onto your belly you bring your rifle up to your shoulder. This M-1 you have carried since basic training back in the states suddenly seems foreign. The front sight looks like it is a mile away as you squint through the rear peep sight.
         Without warning Whitey opens fire. The spent rounds banging off your steel helmet. This throws off your concentration and adds to the chaos of the moment. "Fire that shootin' iron, Mac!!" He screams as he continues pulling the trigger. Focused again, you ease your woolen gloved finger on to the trigger. Letting out a foggy breath you squeeze. Expecting a belch of flame and a hearty kick, you flinch. But nothing happens. Is your rifle broken? Was the bullet bad and misfired? You look dumbly at the rifle's bolt. Whitey's weapon pings in your ear. The metal block that holds the eight rounds of .30-06 smacks the side of your helmet distracting you again. "Safety, you moron! Take the safety off." Looking down you realize you haven't pushed the safety catch forward in the trigger housing.
        This realization comes none too soon. The four ghost like Germans, initially taken by surprise by Whitey's shooting, have heard the pinging of his M block are now standing up and starting to advance on you and your hole. Without a second thought or hesitation you snap the safety forward and start pulling the trigger with all your might. The cough of the Garand drowns out the sound of the German bullets snapping above your head and hitting the ground around you. Your eyes are shut and you don't see one of the white clad figures fall stiffly onto the forrest floor.
       An explosion to your front awakens you from the darkness of your tightly closed eyes. "Whitey! Did you toss a grenade?"
       "Nope, sure didn't. Them there are the mines I told you about." Schaller shouts as he slams another clip of ammo into the open action of his rifle. Without another word Whitey taps you on the shoulder and takes off at a sprint. Again, you follow. The ground gradually rising up in front of you makes the sprint feel like a slow walk. You aren't on any trail or path, it is just forrest, clear on the ground but thick 20 or so feet above you. Whitey turns and starts towards a deep walled draw. He slows as you catch up.
     "Not to worry, Mac. this draw will lead us up to flat ground and Marnach. Those mines will keep the Krauts busy. Plus, with this durned fog they are about as confused as we are. They'll hesitate to shoot at forms in the distance."
      You stay on Whitey's heels for what seems like hours. He was right. The terrain led up to what looked almost like a plateau. To your front you see the trees starting to thin and light filtering through the boughs. This is "Skyline Drive." No vehicles are moving down it. Could the Germans have pushed tanks or halftracks this far so soon? Your mind wonders. Surely, other units are throwing everything they have at the advance and slowing their move, right? More unanswered questions. After a quick stop at the edge of the road, you and Whitey cross. You keep your eyes to the south, Whitey's to the north. You don't see anything.
      Another dirt trail crosses in front of you. This is the road to Marnach. You can tell by the white and black road sign tilting in the mud. Whitey slows to a walk. His posture doesn't relax and neither does yours. When approaching a friendly position it can be as dangerous as approaching an enemy one. All it takes is one skittish sentry with a lose trigger finger and you have bought the farm.
      "Texas" comes a call out of the mist.
       "Leaguer" Whitey shouts. "Come on, Mac. We're inside our lines now. We gotta go find Sergeant Kuhn or Cap'n Carson and let them know what's going on."
        Marnach, as you see, after a short walk down the dirt road, is a small town. A couple of stone buildings make up the town square. The remaining eight or nine buildings are wooden and aged. There is evidence that a few artillery rounds have impacted around the buildings. There is a deep rumbling to the west. Looks like the Germans are focusing on Clervaux for the time being. Whitey heads down the cobblestone street to one of the stone buildings. A wooden ration crate lid leans against the stairs stating this was the company command post.
       "Go grab some chow over at the field kitchen. I'll report to the Sergeant and CO." Whitey says as he claps you on the shoulder.
        You can see the smoke of the field kitchen just down the street. Your stomach reminds you that it hasn't been filled in days. On the wind you smell the food. There is a line of four GIs standing outside the olive drab tent. Their mess tins shining in the early dawn light. You haven't taken more than a dozen steps before you hear an ear splitting shrieking. On instinct you duck your head. In front of your eyes you see a blinding flash. Where the four hungry Soldiers had been standing now was a conflagration of searing flame. The other explosions come fast. The sounds seem like they are at the end of a long tunnel. You can't take your eyes off the smoking crater that moments before had been the chow line.
       From behind someone grabs you. Whitey spins you around and shoves you back down the road you had just come. The world is a heaving, firey, blast. Every concussion knocks you to your knees. Your rifle, slung on your shoulder, keeps falling onto the stones. The town around you is being taken apart impact by impact.
      The Germans are using one of their worst tools of war "Screaming Meemis" or Nebelwerfer Rockets. This 82 millimeter rocket packed with high explosives and incendiary chemicals is both a kinetic and psychological weapon. When the electric plunger is triggered, a scream erupts from the rocket motors and continues until detonation. Many a seasoned combat Soldier on both the eastern and western front have lost their nerve during a barrage by these rockets.
     The "Front" is collapsing. The 110th Infantry Regiment, led by Colonel Hurley Fuller, is manning a twenty-two mile front. This extended distance is usually a Division level front. But the orders were given  and the 110th saluted and moved out. Now, the once contiguous line running from Leiler to Hosingen, had fragmented into three tiny strongholds in Heinerscheid, Marnach, and Hosingen. No one from the lowest Private to GEN Omar Bradley had a clue what was going on, or the fragile situation along the Forward Line Of Troops.
      You are in another Foxhole. Your third in less than 24 hours. Whitey pulled you through the storm of fire and schrapnel that was Marnach, into the defensive position just outside of town. As your hearing returns the deep rumble you were feeling in the bottoms of your boots now becomes audible. It is an engine and tracks. TANKS!!! Every bone in your body tells you to ditch your heavy gear and run away. But Whitey is standing firm in the same hole as you and he isn't moving.
     A quick look over the lip of the dirt hole shows you that the tracked vehicle noise you were hearing wasn't a German Panzer looking to grind you into pulp, but the tractors of a US towed tank destroyer unit depositing it's fierce guns along the road from Dasburg to Marnach. The sight is a relief to every GI in the tiny defensive position. They might not stop an Armored Battalion of Krauts, but it will make them think twice about continuing down that road.
    The shelling of Marnach has not stopped since you were in the middle of it. The German Infantry was bound to be following close behind the barrage. But where were they? In ones and twos, disheveled GIs come from the east. Men belonging to the 112th Infantry and 109th Field Artillery caught in the torrent of rockets and artillery, escapees from cutoff outposts, trickled in to the stronghold of Marnach.
    Sergeant Pettit somehow found some field phones and wire and rigged a line of communication to the squads manning the perimeter. The tank destroyer guys got a phone, too. Now there was a chance at coordinating the fight that was bound to happen. Through the fog and mist, morning light was getting stronger. Visibility outside your foxhole increased to maybe 20 or 30 feet. A German was more likely to fall into an American hole than he was to be shot by a GI inside one.
     Nature doesn't work off of man's timetable. You feel your bladder start to strain. So you climb out of your position and pick a nice big fur tree to stand behind. The pressing business at hand hasn't even started when the crack of a 75 millimeter anti-tank gun sounded. The fight was on. Your feet don't touch the ground from the chosen fir tree you were about to water back to your foxhole.
    There to your front you can see, however faintly, a line of advancing Germans. The anti-tank gunners are not wasting any time finding the range to the advancing enemy. From the report of the guns to the explosions amongst the Germans is almost instant. The flash and flying mud from the shell's impact tear through the enemy. But they keep coming. To your right a .30 caliber machine gun starts to fire. The staccatto rhythm adds to the cacophony of sound. Whitey glances at you and nods. You nod back and pull the M-1 Garand into your shoulder....                          

1 comment:

  1. A 22 mile front for a BDE sized element! Whoa, that's bound to suck. Perhaps more doable in an open desert environment with a greater range of visibility. However, in a forested That most certainly has to suck....