©2003, 2009 Colin Charland, Chad Charland, and Claire Ashford
Battle at a small town and orchardA meeting was held on our way to attack a small town held by the Germans by the lieutenant and about seventeen of us and the platoon leader said, "Hell, there's plenty of us to take over this town. That's what we came here for – to kill Krauts and from the looks of things, there's a lot of them to be killed."
"What's the plan?" one of us asked.
The lieutenant answered: "A direct assault and the sooner the better, let's go." He jumped up and started running toward the group of houses, yelling as he went. We all leaped and followed him. We spread out and fired as we ran through the fields and apple orchards, and right up to the houses. I saw my first German running through the trees at an angle to our right flank. I stopped, took a good sight on him and squeezed the trigger. The rifle bucked against my shoulder. I don't remember hearing the shot or the recoil, but the German spun sideways and fell face first out of sight in the grass. Another Kraut stepped around the comer of a building, and stood there looking down at the spot where the first soldier fell. I had a good straight-on shot at him and fired and he too fell backward, not to rise. Scratch two Huns. Fighting was at a fevered pitch now. All around, men were running between buildings, through yards and over fences. Four soldiers ran at a gate in a hedge surrounding a house and almost immediately, there came a long ripping burst of a Kraut machine gun. The four Americans died in a weed-choked front yard. Automatically, other soldiers shunned the yard but moved on the double on all fours down the hedges on either side until they were in throwing distance of the house and grenaded it. One soldier leapt through a side window, fired several rounds from his M-1, and stepped to the front door and motioned that it was all clear. Running through the open gateway, past the dead and into the house, I saw a German machine gun, a lot of empty shells and a couple of boxes of ammo under the window to the left of the door. No Germans or bodies were in the house. Evidently they had cleared out when the first grenades hit, leaving their guns behind. The soldier who went through the window said they went out the back way just as he entered. He fired at them but none of them went down.
We left the house and rejoined the others in clearing out the remaining houses. There were a lot of them. German soldiers were pulling out of town by the back way and disappearing into the fields and woods surrounding the town.
German dead were scattered about in the houses, ditches and fields. I don't know how many I hit. The ones that fell when I fired were down for good. After occupying the German positions, we wondered why they had given them up so easily, for the walls were all of stone, two feet thick, with rifle openings to fire out from. Over 200 Germans had vacated their positions, leaving behind about 40 dead and about 75 prisoners. Four of our men were dead.
One of our guys could speak German and he questioned the prisoners as to why their comrades had pulled out. They said that when we came at them, yelling, hollering and shooting across the open fields, they figured a whole division was directed right at them and never dreamed that only 17 or so men armed with rifles and grenades would attack over 200 well-armed soldiers in stone fortifications. The bluff had worked.
The early morning march and the capture of the town had taken only a few hours. I felt hungry, having had no breakfast as yet, so Bill and I each broke up a K-Rations box marked "breakfast." The chopped pork and egg yolks tasted like hell as usual. After finishing, we lit cigarettes and leaned against the road bank to enjoy the warm sun. A bullet cracked between us. Our reactions were getting faster and we both hit the bottom of the ditch at the same time.
"There he is!" yelled Bill. "I see him. He just ran behind that orchard and is heading toward the houses at the right."
We were staring over the ridge again, but I didn't see him right away so we waited and watched the place. Then a little further to the right, I saw someone moving. It was another Kraut. Easing my rifle up, it was an easy shot. I saw the dust fly from his jacket as I squeezed the trigger and he dropped down. There were more out there than the two of us figured on because just then a machine gun opened up and raked the brush around us and as if that were a signal, the whole world seemed to explode in flames and bullets were flying so thick, it seemed you could reach up and grab a handful of bullets out of the air. All the soldiers were firing now and some of the ones closer to the road were lobbing grenades as fast as they could on the other side.
It became a pitched battle with only a narrow blacktop road separating the two forces. Actions became furious – firing at fleeing shapes, crawling to different positions and firing, reloading and firing again and again. The Germans were in the ditch on one side of the road while we were in the opposite ditch on the other side. A distance of not more than 30 yards separated us at times.
Just as I slipped my rifle through the foliage to fire, I could see the muzzle flashes from the enemy rifles at they fired at us. The Germans usually dropped back into the ditch while working the bolt of their Mauser rifles, but we could always get off one to three shots at them to their one before ducking back down. They used smokeless powder and were difficult to locate, whereas our weapons gave out clouds of smoke that gave our positions away and kept us moving to keep from getting our heads blown away. There was very little wind and the smoke clung close around us.
The smell of smoke burned deep in our nostrils, leaving the I backs of our throats and the roofs of our mouths dry, along with an acrid taste.
The firing died down and stopped as the enemy withdrew, leaving us to count our losses again and close up the gaps in our lines left by dead soldiers. Things became fairly quiet with only occasional sniping going on from both sides. Bill and I lay on the grass smoking our cigarettes and watching the artillery shells drop first in one field. then the other. It was strange in a way. The Germans had a fortress here from which a few men could hold off an army, a few men had taken it and now were holding them off even though they outnumbered us almost 15 to 1.
The rest of the day passed easily and we joined our positions. We started piling cobblestones across the end of the ditch. Bill joined in and we had built a wall about three feet high across the end of the ditch next to a road. Night came and several men crawled into the ditch behind Bill and me to give support in case Germans tried to come into town on the road. We had a rocket launcher to add firepower.
Just when night was at its darkest, a shadow appeared above us and started spraying up and down the ditch with a machine gun (burp gun). We couldn't see him at first. He just stood there, a vague shape. There was nothing we could do but lie flat in the ditch for the brief seconds it took him to empty his magazine. While he was snapping another in place, some of the men fired in his direction and he took off. The shooting really started hot and heavy. One Kraut crept up to the other side of the road, lined himself up with the ditch we were in and opened fire. Bill lobbed a grenade in his direction. The firing stopped with the blast. Not one of the shots got past the stones we had piled up at the opening end of the ditch. A few minutes of work had saves our asses. Grenades were bouncing like crazy with small arms fire going back and forth at a fast rate for a few minutes.
The firing gradually slowed down. The Germans pulled out and the filing quit altogether. Bill called down to see if anyone was hurt and crawled back down the ditch but everyone seemed okay. It was a miracle. No one was hurt although there were plenty of bullets zipping around us. We hadn't done too badly, though. We had dispersed over 150 Germans, captured a town, taken 75 prisoners, killed at least that many more and now commanded the high ground. I thanked the Good Lord we were alive after all the f------ fighting.
With scouts out and our lieutenant in command, we started out in the direction of Ste. Marie sur Glane. Just before we got to the crossroads, two machine guns opened up and small arms fire raked us. But luck was with us and no one was hit. Everyone scrambled for the safety of the foxholes and houses. The Krauts had the road out of town blocked. Several times, soldiers tried to break through, but each time were driven back under a withering hail of fire. Finally, two men took the prisoners out of the stables, lined them up on the road in a column of twos and marched them down the hill toward the machine guns. They were hoping the enemy wouldn't fire on their own, but it didn't make any difference to the Germans and they opened up, shooting holes in their own men in trying to kill the Americans. The prisoners started screaming "Nicht Schiessen" (don't shoot). The POWs attempted to escape, so we opened up on them too. The poor bastards were caught in a crossfire and when the shooting stopped, they were all dead.
One of the soldiers ran straight at the machine gun closest to the road. His action scared the German gunner because, although he fired a steady burst at the oncoming soldier, he never did touch him. He covered the distance, leaped over the gun and slashed the German's throat with his trench knife. Then with a quick left jab, he knocked the other Kraut backwards. With both of these Krauts dead, the men on the other guns tried to make a break, but were cut down before they could run away.
On the march, we passed through a section that had been blasted to rubble. I don't know whether it was from bombing or shelling. The trees were shredded stumps with some smoke or ground fog going through them. The ground was plowed up into loose dirt with large craters scattered all over the area. The whole scene reminded me of some page out of "HELL" by Dante. A deathly silence hung over the place like a heavy pall. The shuffling sound of our boots along the hard surface of the highway sounded loud. I thought to myself that this must be the home of death itself with the devil looking on. On we went, passing through Benouville and St. Martin De Monts, sometimes getting hit pretty heavy by Kraut shellfire. Amfreville fell behind us, then a small cluster of houses with no name. At Font Hebert, we made a turn and headed through a place that had swamps on either side of the road. We saw a Sherman tank bogged down in the swamp. Then we saw three American burned-out tanks and one still smoking Panther tank to the left and farther ahead blown apart by shell fire and dead Germans around.
Someone said, "I hope we have enough Shermans to last through the war. So many have been hit."
Gunfire sounded from up ahead and we could make out the tall steeple of a church which was in the center of town. The area was full of casualties – a veritable graveyard. Just before we reached our objective, someone shouted "Let's go" and we automatically picked up our stead and started moving at a familiar pace. We passed a road sign marked Ste. Claire and saw soldiers crouched in doorways and laying in gutters along the road. Firing was coming in from the other end of the street as well as going out from this end. But we kept on with a steady run until one of the soldiers yelled to us that all of the town wasn't taken yet. The Huns opened fire on us and we returned fire, shooting from the hip as we ran, but didn't hit any of them as far as I could see. A man in front of me went down and rolled into the ditch dead. A chance shot. We kept on the run going like hell right through town. On the outskirts, we came across several American soldiers sprawled dead along the roadside and although we didn't stop to examine them closely, I did see that they were lying face up. A dreadful feeling came over me and again I wished I were somewhere else. For they had their throats cut open leaving nothing but bloody, gaping wounds. Lying there next to each other, shoulder to shoulder, made this seem like a pure murder, not war. Hatred and rage welled up in me – "The "Godless bastards," I uttered. "I'll see about this. One turn deserves another."
Once clear of the village, we had pretty good going until we ran into some 357th guys from 3rd Battalion who teamed up with two Sherman tanks and were mopping up some Germans in the fields on either side of the road. We joined with them in firing at the enemy in the ditches ahead, but they were too well dug in to get hit with rifle fire. The turret on one of the tanks opened and the tank commander said he would flush them out for us. He maneuvered his tank so that one tread was on the road and the other in the ditch. Then he started moving ahead at a slow pace. When he reached the enemy, several of them tried running out across the road, but were cut down by our rifle and BAR fire. Four of those who stayed in the ditch were crushed under the tread of the tank. This was too much for the rest of them and they all ran at once, heading across the field and across the road. We fired full blast at them. None of them made it to safety.
The way was clear now and we started out once more and went right to the outskirts of town. Men were lined head-to-toe in the ditches and a non-com yelled for us to get down, that the Kraut mortars had the place zeroed in and were raising hell with the troops up and down the road. One man was dead in the ditch and another lay on his back in the middle of the road. There was nothing anyone could do but feel sorry for him. He lay there with eyes staring at the clear blue sky while his throat moved as though he were trying to breathe, but just couldn't get the air into his lungs. He stayed that way for a moment, then returned to a relaxed position. I watched him for a while and thought to myself this was a hell of a way to die.
Word passed back down the line to get ready for an attack on the town. We jumped off on command from the head of the column. While lying there, we talked to the other men who had already been fighting for possession of this place. They had had a pretty rough time of it. It seems that the town had been taken once by elements of the 358th, who slammed through and headed for Beaumont. Enemy troops had counterattacked from the sides after the 358th had passed through and were now pouring fire at us. Fire got heavier and heavier. Men that were scattered through the fields on our right started running forward. Men in the ditches ahead of us rose up, looked over their shoulders, and yelled "Let's go" and waved us on as they started forward. It was mass confusion having to watch everything at once.
The attack snowballed. Soon men were everywhere; all heading for the buildings ahead. I didn't recognize anyone. I didn't attach myself to any one squad, but went along with what seemed to be the largest flow of troops. Gaining the town, we worked our way to the left toward the hedgerows to take up positions against another counterattack. Large groups of German prisoners' were being herded onto the main road and back the way we had come. We were deployed with other men far out to the left flank. The sun was shining brightly and I was damned tired. Again, men shouted and started forward and although I wasn't sure which way was forward anymore, I went along with them shouting and crashing through hedges. In field after field, we were fired on by burp guns and slammed by mortar fire, but we could not make physical contact with the Krauts. We fired into hedges where we thought they would be as we ran. The Germans lay in the heavy hedges firing at us as we charged them. Then they faded away to rear positions as we neared the hedge they were firing from, leaving behind only their dead and wounded.
Heavy firing and fighting sounded to our right in the direction of a town. Artillery screamed far overhead and from the sounds, they were large shells, heading deep into enemy territory. We traveled for what seemed to be miles through thickets, hedges and fields until we finally came on a large group of men deployed in skirmish lines facing another town. These men weren't moving, just spread out in the open as though waiting for something to happen. The men I was with melted into their lines as though they belonged.
I lay next to a sergeant who asked me what outfit I was with and seemed sort of surprised when I told him G Company 357th. To our right, two officers, one with a radio, were talking and studying a map. A lone two-story brick house had been standing quite a way ahead of us and a little to our right. Now it was nothing but a pile of rubble. The accuracy of that artillery was frightening. The barrage continued for what seemed to be about half an hour, working the hedges and the Kraut gun emplacements. Some of it landed in our own lines killing several men, wounding others. Then the shelling lifted and again, we attacked.
Swinging to our right, crossing hedges and fields, we came onto a road, then turned left and went into town under heavy fire. The Germans counterattacked with their infantry and by sheer numbers forced us back. But we slammed back with ferocity and gained part of the town. Next came in the infamous S.S. which forced us to withdraw. But the men recovered quickly and again we retook half the town. Then came the shock, enemy infantry charged in and after bitter fighting, the town again was in German hands.
We found out from a few prisoners taken in the withdrawal that the infantry was made up of Azerbaijanis who had sided with the Germans.
The roads, fields and town were littered with dead from both sides. We lay in the ditches and hedges hot, tired, dirty, sweaty and thirsty. What I wouldn't give then for one cup of cold dirty water. Then the order came and we were in another wild charging melee, yelling at the top of our voices. Glancing to the right I could see other troops scattered through the fields and making their way over the hedgerows which grew close to the edge of town. On we went, running down the street and straight into the heavy fire of the enemy. Then we were amongst them and door to door fighting started, house by house, room by room. We shot and grenaded our way through the houses and streets. Entering one house on the run, I found myself in a room. A stairway on the right led to a second floor. A door on my left opened to another large room. I swung into the room on the left just as I spotted a Kraut with a burp gun entering the room. The German must have gotten down the stairs when I entered the room on the left and just before I left the house, I swung my M-1 around and caught him in the face with several shots.
When we finally got time to breathe it was on the far side of town. The remnants of the Georgians or Circassians, they were all alike to me, had withdrawn to the surrounding fields and hedgerows and were regrouping so the rest of us followed, figuring the main body of Germans were in that direction. Somehow, Bill and I got separated again in the scramble and I joined three other men carrying a .30 caliber air–cooled machine gun. One was carrying the machine gun on a tripod with half a belt of ammo wrapped loosely around the barrel and ready to fire. All of them carried boxes of ammo at the same time, so my offer to carry the load was accepted right away. One man was in the front with the gun with another carrying the back two legs of the tripod and loaded with ammo.
We started out across the hedgerows into Indian country. Brush grew so thick around the edge of the fields that in crawling through it and over the hedges, we soon found that the four of us were crossing a field with no sign of any men around. Firing was going on all around us and we were hot, sweaty and dog tired. We had run until I thought we were all going to collapse at one time.
A machine gun blasted at us from our right flank in long ripping burps, typical of German machine guns, showering us with hot lead and leaves. We dropped right where we were as though we were dead. The Krauts blasted at us again and I could hear the rounds slamming into the ground around us. Then one man jumped up and ran the last few steps to a hedgerow and disappeared into a hole. He yelled for us to join him and another and I jumped into the hole after him. We lay there waiting for them to attack, but nothing happened and we could see nothing in the underbrush to shoot at.
One soldier took the lead again and stepped boldly into the open. He had a lot of guts to step out like that in front of a hidden machine gun and walked around the middle of the field trying to draw fire on himself. It must have been a lone Kraut who fired on us, then took off, because there were no more shots. So ended this fiasco which, in my point of view, accomplished nothing except a bunch of our guys got killed uselessly and all of us were still in the dark.