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Remembrance of Combat in Normandy

Guy Charland

©2003, 2009 Colin Charland, Chad Charland, and Claire Ashford

Chapter 13

The Hornets' Nest

    Orders came down from battalion headquarters for a general assault against German units, armor and infantry, guarding a number of ammo dumps and a supply center near the small town of St. Andre bordering on a small river (I've forgotten the name). Our Company Commander had a meeting with the platoon leaders who in turn told us through the non-coms of our part in attempting to assault and destroy this important objective. Our platoon leader was pretty thorough in explaining what our (the second platoon) mission was in this battle and especially what "G" Company's responsibility was. It was to be an early morning attack (early darkness) to strategic areas before battalion artillery opened up with a concentrated barrage on the Krauts to soften them up a bit to help our advance (we hoped). Maybe we could achieve the objective with minimum casualties.

    I told Bill, "Well, that's reassuring news."

    Then we were told that we were to be held in reserve. (That was even better.) It appeared that 1st battalion 357th would do the initial attack with 3rd battalion attacking on the right flank with us (2nd battalion) to follow up with further support if needed. The 358th and 359th were involved with this battle, but that's all we knew. We also were told we might have air support before the artillery opened up. What a show this was going to be. Bill and I called this mission by our own name, "Hellzapoppin' ", unofficially of course. Anyhow, it sounded good. We were all ready for the fireworks to spring on the Germans unless they knew about it already, then the surprise was out the window.

    The day was moderately quiet except for some sporadic shots being exchanged here and there. Preparations were in the works for the early morning advance to closer positions to the German ammo dump and other sites. All movement was to be as quiet as possible, very tactical. No lights and whispers only.

    A funny thought hit me. What if someone took a violent fit of sneezing or coughing. I can just see it now. What a mess that would create. I tried to forget about that. What I am glad of is that the Luftwaffe wasn't around to spot this activity of surprise attack. Thank the Lord. I related this thought to Bill and he agreed. Boy, that sure would have been the end of that battalion operation.

    We dug our entrenchments and foxholes and tried to cover them up with branches, logs and leaves in case the Hun decided to knock a few of us off, but as darkness began to fall, everything got more or less quiet except for the fireflies and crickets who made a hell of a racket. Then a breeze came up and it went through the trees shaking the leaves. I hoped it wasn't going to rain, though the stars were out, but weather can change. We hadn't had any rain lately, just hot and humid weather. It was so quiet I had an eerie feeling and felt a slight chill. I lit a reefer covered by my helmet. It seemed to reassure me. Funny how smoking a cig would calm you down somewhat. Bill and I talked a bit but were on the watch for enemy patrols. I decided to get some shuteye but felt too jittery so I just lay there thinking about home mainly and then about the attack to be launched at daybreak. I wished it would get here and then, at the same time, that the Germans would decide to pull out. Fat chance. Both of us had bad feelings about the whole thing. Something might go wrong. We stayed awake. Then we saw dawn just showing on the horizon. Both of us were real tense and jittery. It wouldn't be long now before hell would erupt all along the line.

    We heard a sound. It was the platoon sergeant checking things. "Everything okay?" We said yeah. We were just nervous as hell for the big gun to go boom. The Sarge reassured us that everything would turn out all right when the time came to move out fast. We kind of answered with a sick "Yeah, sure." I kept checking my M-1 and the grenades. I looked at the pig sticker on the rifle (bayonet) as security. It's funny, I remembered the Krauts seldom had their bayonets on their Mausers, and I wondered why. For some odd reason, that made me feel good. They didn't like bayonet fighting.

    The sky was getting clearer. I looked for Bill. "Stay close, pal." He kind of gave me a smile and waved. I had just started to change position when suddenly the whole sky lit up in flashes like lightning. The earth blew up and shook like a giant quake. Then the shattering, angry sound of the big artillery and screaming shells like out of hell, the terrible sound was enough to shatter your ear drums. One series after another of huge detonations and explosions. The sky was all lit up. It felt like the end of the world. I was never so damned scared in all my damned life. I called on God Almighty to help us – mixed feelings. I hope they kill all those damned Kraut bastards, wipe 'em out. Bill and I just huddled there in our holes with frazzled nerves. We must have smoked 50 cigarettes between curses and prayers, my curses and Bill's prayers. It was just one unbelievable fantastic nerve shattering outpouring from the depths of hell with all the devils and demons let loose. I couldn't help but feel that a lot of the guys suffered concussions being so close to this hellish and demonic symphony. To this day, anytime I go through a thunder and lightning flashing sky of a rainstorm, it still gets me nervous and uptight, waiting for the shrapnel to get me. It always bothers me. It's so related to gunfire. I dread a thunderstorm. I guess after going through so much artillery and bombs from D–Day to the end of my combat days, it has left its deadly impression in my mind. I'm a type of person who's easily impressed and it doesn't take much, even people dropping things on the floor makes me jump five feet in the air and look for shelter. It's funny after all these years to still have these feelings.

    Suddenly, it became deadly still. The barrage had lifted. We raised ourselves up and looked around. Suddenly, we heard a faint growling noise in the air – aircraft. You could hear the sound get louder. We looked up and back at the sky. Here they come – the fighter bombers. I recognized them. Bill said, "What are they? I hope ours." There were P-47s, 1 Typhoons and twin-engined planes, P-70s and A-20s, I think. I'm not clear. It looked like hordes of them. They were one beautiful sight. Talk about low level, the tree branches shook. One P-47 came so close I could see the pilot in his cockpit looking at us. We waved. I'll bet when the Krauts saw this awesome sight after all that artillery barrage, they thought the end had finally come for them. I couldn't see after all this carnage that any enemy would be left alive and with all that ammunition blowing up, it must have been a living hell for them I'm damned sure. The planes kept coming in droves. It looked like a field day for the Air Force.

    We were all ready to move into German territory. We thought it would be less costly to us since the aircraft had done their part in destroying the biggest part of their army. We couldn't see how anything could have survived all this destruction, but Bill and I felt we couldn't be too sure. We had situations like this before and stepped into a hornet's nest and suffered a lot of casualties. We did not expect all the debris, blown up terrain, stone walls, etc., which  improved their defenses 100 percent. There was still life in the beast, as we were about to find out. Well, at least we were in reserve and the 1st Battalion would be the first to find out and get first blood. I'm glad we weren't the guys to move into the hornet's nest first. Maybe the other battalion could finish the Krauts off and they wouldn't need us, and then again, there were the other two regiments, the 358th and 359th. We also had some armored units but I don't know who and anti-tank guys also to deliver that extra punch.

    As the hours moved along, I got feeling this was going to be one hell of a scrap. At this time we could hear a lot of firing going on, mortars, MGs, BARs, even small light artillery added to it. We could hear huge explosions with large billows of black smoke filling the sky over the enemy position. Must have been a good part of all the ammunition collection being blasted away. There must have been a lot of them blown up. The sky was lit up with flashes and began getting black with soot and smoke. We could smell the sharp acrid odor drifting in on us causing my eyes to tear and bum, even though we were quite a way down from the action.

    While sitting there, we saw a number of M-4s (Sherman tanks) roll by heading into the battle and also some M-10s with the big 105s mounted on them. It looked like everybody and his brother was in on this. It was midway through the morning and we still didn't know what the situation was or how the battle was going. We still didn't get any orders. Well, at least we didn't have any snipers taking pot shots at us. That was a relief. The firefight seemed too intense and still we waited. It was getting on my nerves. I must have smoked a dozen weeds. Next thing, the platoon leader and sergeant came running up. "Let's go, let's move out on the double. Straight ahead, gang." It sure came as a surprise. So I grab my M-1. I yell at Bill, "Looks like this is it. Watch out that the Krauts don't get you in the ass," with a laugh. Now was "get scared time." We jumped over some fallen timber and tree stumps, being careful not to trip, watching where we ran and ahead at the same time. Already, I was panting carrying this load of rifle, grenades, and ammo bag, etc. It was no picnic. As we ran we saw evidence of the shelling and strafing – dead Germans all over. We didn't have much chance to see anything else. Though the destruction was visible, Bill and I ran now at a gentle trot behind the others of "G" company. Then we came to a halt in this wooded area. There was still considerable firing and a lot of noise in our direct front. We hadn't see any live Germans yet. Then I was startled by a rabbit that darted in front of me. I damned well jumped out of my skin. I felt my heart jump like a triphammer. Bill saw the rabbit and laughed like hell at me. Told me I had combat fatigue. After a short break, we heard "Let's go!" and off we went for a few hundred yards, stopped and dug in. All this time, we could hear gunfire and a fierce battle going on. Orders were we stay here until called on to join the battle.

    "We'll stand ready here if and when we're needed" said the platoon sergeant. "We are in reserve right now."

    Some time later the main battle ended with the defeat of the Kraut forces and destruction of the ammo base and other supplies, we were told by the commanding officer of our company. We could still hear artillery bombardment of the German strongpoints which still resisted. We were told our mission or assignment now would be to follow up the 358th sector and what is commonly known as "mopping up." This could be a very hazardous project. When the enemy would get the worst end of it and give up the battle and start to retreat, they would always leave behind pockets of resistance and booby traps if they had time. So "mopping up" always proved to be deadly.

    So this was our part in this battle – clear the area and corral prisoners of war, if any, pick up wounded left behind. We arrived at this small river and started to cross to the other side, a few hundred yards, with our rifles over our heads because the water was waist high. My platoon was in the middle when shots rang out and three replacements were hit, two fatally. I tried like hell to get over as quick as I could. I could see slugs hitting the water in front of me. Luckily, I reached the safety of the embankment without mishap such as getting shot or drowned. We got into the area where the Germans had been fighting, where the heavy shelling struck, and the heavy strafing by the fighter bombers. God, what carnage and annihilation we viewed, like a horror story. German dead covered large areas and near dead which our medics attended to. As I said the shelling had been thorough and successful. Their vehicles of all descriptions lay in twisted, contorted shapes. Some wreckage could not be identified. Fires were all over the area. You could tell that death paid a visit here.

    We finally met up with those left-behind German defenses. Now we had our work cut out. Machine gun fire came in all directions at us. I can't see how I or Bill or anyone else wasn't hit. The fire came from improvised positions completely hidden and from a cluster of small houses nearby. We had moved into a hedgehog of resistance points. We hit the ground and tried to recover from our surprise. We should have known and been more cautious. In our hurry to close in, a few guys became casualties. Most of them from behind me and Bill. It was plain they were expecting us.

    While lying there in a ground depression with a few bushes, I was trying to detect where the fire was coming from at us or anywhere else. I finally spotted what appeared to be a couple or three Germans a stone's throw away to my left behind a cluster of twisted steel beams and other junk. I could see the flash of their weapons and some slugs hitting the overhead trees. As a matter of fact, striking the rocks and ground in our front. It was not impossible for us to throw a couple of pineapples (grenades) at them with a lot of luck provided we lived long enough.

    They spotted us all right. Their firing kept us low down. Just as our luck began running out, help came just in time. A few of our guys spotted them and assaulted their positions and killed all three. You talk of just in time! We waved to them our thanks. We got up and headed for those groups of houses we had seen earlier. We caught up to the guys who had saved our asses. They were from "H" company moving up with us. Their Sergeant grinned at us. "Compliments of "H" company." I found out his name was Sgt. Norris from Georgia. We spread out and headed to the houses with rifles firing from the hip hoping to scare the Krauts into giving up mingled with all kinds of rebel yells and cuss words. It seemed to work as three Germans came out with their hands up and to our horror, were shot down by their own men. I couldn't believe they did this. The name Hun is right. The other Germans in this one house were firing at us but didn't hit any of our guys. I guess we were moving too fast and zig-zagging or else there were gunshots. We broke into the house and three or four Germans turned and fled out the back door, with Bill and I and a couple of others at their heels. Two turned around to shoot back and missed but were cut down. I think I shot one. I'm hot sure. We were all firing. The other Kraut cried "Kamerad," surrender in German, and one of our guys drove his bayonet into one's chest. While this had been going on, there was firing and yelling all around these houses. The action was fierce and heated. It had started to rain. Skies were very gray looking with occasional lightning flashes. We move on but saw no more Germans. All resistance appeared to have stopped.

    We gathered up a large number of prisoners. The enemy seemed pretty discouraged and sullen by their looks. In our part of it all, fighting stopped except for some fighting in other company areas. We were told they were still resisting in the 1st Battalion (A, B, and C Companies) part of the enemy positions and that there was some sporadic combat in other areas outside of 2nd Battalion's (G. H, and I Companies) advance. For all purposes, the conflict to destroy the enemy emplacements and ammo dumps was successful and finally ceased. I was all f-----g spent out. I fell down and propped up against a tree and emptied my water canteen.

    Other things occurred in this battle which I don't remember. Some vaguely. But I do know it had started to rain again, but at least, thank God, this day or two finally ended. I found my pal in one of the demolished houses drinking some wine he found and part of a loaf of bread. "Here," he said as he handed me the bottle. "I saved some for you. It's on the house. No charge." We both sat down at a table that was still intact with more than welcome relief. We had earned it. What a god awful time. Later we got the casualty count. 1st Battalion suffered the most with 3rd Battalion not far behind. Our losses in killed and wounded were much less, but even one loss is tragic. The reason being that we had been in reserve so did not see as much of the battle or the fighting as the others did. We did not go untouched, however. We had quite a number killed, but mostly wounded. The replacements were more heavily hit in all units. "G" Company had seven killed but none of the older guys of the Company. By old guys, I mean the original members from the Camp Barkley, Texas days. We had a number of wounded but none fatally, thank the Lord, or as Bill the Irishman would say, "Thanks be to God." Now let's have some more of "Le vin Rouge" or red wine in French in his anglicized English.

    The area which had those ammunition dumps and material for equipment and vehicle repair was just destroyed and all but turned into a twisted junk yard. It had not been well camouflaged from the air recon. It was discovered by recon units on the ground also which were ignored by the German ground units. They figured they were pretty well protected and unnoticed much to their sorrow.

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