Rumor for once becomes fact. We are going to the front. Not only that, but we have been assigned to General Patton's 3rd army. There is feverish activity in the battery. The full prescribed battle load of 105mm ammunition and grenades are loaded on all combat vehicles and we fill our magazines with carbine and submachine gun ammunition.
My sectionthe battery Reconnaissance Sectionis the first to move out. In battle this section accompanies an armored infantry company, maintaining communication and liaison with the supporting guns of the artillery; also, the lieutenant and I adjust artillery fire upon such of the enemy and his works as may hold up our attacking infantry. In order for us to become better acquainted with the infantry we are to work with, we are to make the long motor march across France to the front with C Company.
When the last grenade and box of K Ration has been stowed in halftrack and jeep, and Slate has given the radios a final check, we pull out of the battery bivouac area and move down the road a few kilometers to the bivouac area of C Company. In the halftrack are Lieut. Moore, Battery Reconnaissance officer; Corp. Chapman, the driver; Pfc. Manning, radio operator; Pvt. Temple, machine gunner, and myself, reconnaissance sergeant. Following us at a discreet 50 yards is our jeep, containing Pvt. Phillips, wildest jeep driver ever to come out of Georgia, and Pfc. Vachon, telephone operator, French interpreter, and forager par excellence.
We find C Company, place our vehicles in the company column and while Lieut. Moore talks to the company commander I hunt up my old friend, Johnny Nelson. Johnny and I have soldiered together in Iceland in '41 and '42, have come back to the States together to attend Infantry OCS, have been flunked out the same day and have both wound up in the same armored divisionhe as an anti-tank platoon sergeant in the armored infantry, and myself as a reconnaissance sergeant in the armored artillery. I find him sitting with his platoon around a big fire, waiting for the order to move out. We talk for a while and he introduces me to all the platoon sergeants in the company.
Move Out in Rain
The column moves out after an old army tradition, at midnight in a drizzling rain. I have a strip map of the route we are to take, also a small scale map of north-western France which takes us past Paris, and I follow our progress from village to village on this map, so that if we have vehicle trouble I can navigate us until we catch the column again. At daybreak we pass through Coutance and as the light becomes better we can see much evidence of the bitter hedgerow fighting of June and July; many burned out tanks, trucks and armored cars rust along the roadside; many abandoned German 88s and 50mm Pak guns, great piles of empty 105 mm and 155 mm shell cases which mark the old American artillery positions; shell-pocked and much battered areas which mark old German artillery positions and strong-points; wrecked villages and collapsed bridges; occasional clusters of wooden crosses beside the road, with steel helmets hanging over them, and if the helmets be British or American-wreaths of flowers on the fresh graves.
In the afternoon we pass through ruined Falaise, scene of the complete destruction of a German field army: here for the first time see what concentrated bombing and massed artillery fire can do to a town. That town is flat. The terrain is littered with the debris of battle all the way from Falaise to Caen, for it was here that the greatest tank battle in the entire French campaign was fought. In the more badly damaged French towns and villages the people merely stare at out armored columns as it rolls through but in the towns where there was little fighting the people line the streets to see us pass; they yell, wave flags and bottles, and children try to toss apples to soldiers in tanks and halftracks. We bivouac for the night in a meadow beside a sugar beet field near Mantes.
We move out again at daybreak following the winding valley of the seine. Here the German retreat has been more rapid and there are fewer signs of fighting. Except for the blown out bridges and the bombed railway yards the valley is as it must have been in peace. We swing to the west and north of Paris and at noon stop at Nanterre half an hour for lunch. Here the people welcome us enthusiastically; men, women and children rush out from every house with long, crisp loaves of brown French bread, with bottles of wine, with tomatoes, and with apples. We divide our chocolate bars among the children and to the others we offer cigarettes. Vachon is now in his glory; he is surrounded by a score of excited Frenchmen who elbow one another out of the way so that they may shake the hand of this American who speaks such flawless French. When the signal is passed down from the head of the column for us to mount up. Vacon staggers under a double armload of bottles, bread, and apples. We bivouac for the night a few miles east of Paris; there is plenty of firewood available and we pass a pleasant evening drinking wine and swapping yarns around huge campfires.
Next day crossing the rolling plains of Compiegne, we see what our tactical air force has done to the Germans as they fled back toward Metz. Every 50 yards along the road is a slit trench, dug by forced labor for the Germans so that the drivers of their vehicles might have some shelter when the American fighter planes swept the highway. In the ditches and in the fields on both sides of the road are the bullet-splattered and bomb-blasted wreckage of German trucks, Volkswagon, and halftracks, and tanks. Now and then at a crossroad, sharp curve, or hillcrest we can see where some German tank has fought a rearguard action against Gen. Patton's pursuing armor, the hulls of these tanks are blackened and already beginning to rust, their tracks are off and great gashes are visible in their armor, but still the long 88 mm guns point west, covering the highway.
Bivouac In Pine Wood
We bivouac for the last night in a pine wood near Chalons. This is the last night we will have fires we are told; tomorrow night we will have reached the front. Tonight we are quiet and thoughtful around the fires and most of us turn in early.
Our final day's march takes us over terrain twice fought over in 30 years, past Verdun where a million men fought and died in 1916 for possession of the hills, ports, and towns which lie astride the road to Paris. Here we pass American engineer troops repairing roads and bridges torn up in the battle for the town only a few weeks before; here also is a great artillery ammunition dump and long lines of trucks roll steadily back from the front, through the dump and back to the front again. And here at a crossroads is a sign pointing east; METZ-62 KILOMETERS. The Germans still hold Metz and somewhere between here and there we will see our first combat.
Soon we encounter the backwash of war; the head of our column is slowed by long lines of ammunition trucks moving up with now and then a few truck loads of replacements, andcoming in the opposite directionempty trucks and carefully moving ambulances. Then as we top a hill and the column halts for a few minutes, Chapman cuts off the engine of the halftrack and from beyond the eastern horizon we hear the faint mutter and rumble of artillery fire like a distant thunder-storm. In the late afternoon we turn off the highway onto a graveled side road; the signpost reads: METZ-17 KILOMETERS. Just before dusk we pull into a concealed bivouac in a woods. We camouflage our vehicles, pitch tents under the trees still dripping from the afternoon's shower and listen to the battle going on a few thousand yards ahead. We are so close that we can hear both the drumming of the guns and the crump of exploding shells; we can distinguish between the steady tap-tap-tap-tap of our Browning machine guns and the hysterical brrrrp of the German Soluthurns.
At 2100 a runner comes from Lieut. Moore and he and Phillips go with the runner in our jeep. Manning and I check the radio, Vachon installs fresh batteries in the telephones and tests them and checks our battle wire, we check all our weapons and I give each man two fragmentation grenades to hook onto his suspender straps. Chapman fills the gas tanks of the halftrack until they will not take another drop and checks to see that both our water cans are full.
Leiut. Moore returns at 2230 and gives us the dope: we are going up before dawn to relieve another artillery Forward Observer party in Gravelotte: which is our frontline. At the moment we hold two-thirds of the town and the Germans the remainder. Now we will turn in and get some sleep, which we will probably need.
At 0600 we meet the officer and sergeant from the F.O. party we are to relieve. They are waiting for us in the C.P. of an Infantry battalion in Raisonville, a village some three kilometers west of Gravelotte. These two artillerymen are from a veteran Infantry division which has fought its way across France from the Normandy beaches to the Moselle. They are tough babies and they look it. Leaving our halftrack and jeep and the rest of our crew, Lieut. Moore and I transfer to the other F.O.'s jeep, and we go up the road toward Gravelotte. The morning fog is heavy and there is little artillery fire. Occasionally a few rounds of interdictory fire fall upon a crossroads, or some nervous machine gunner lets go a burst into the mist, but otherwise the sector is quiet.
Danger From Sky
The other sergeant a huge red-haired Oklahoman, drives hunched well over the wheel of the jeep and his foot is heavy on the throttle. The jeep proceeds up that road at something over 50 miles per hour, dodging shell craters and bonding like a charging cat. Two kilometers whiz by and the sergeant wrenches the wheel mightily, applies the brake, and the jeep skids to a halt along the west side of a farmhouse. We dismount and go forward on foot; we go through a stable, a tool-shed, through a badly shot-up cabbage patch and along a garden wall to a road. When we have gone some 20 yards up this road I hear a faint rustle in the air, then a whosh close at hand and I dive into the ditch. The shell lands some hundred yards to my right and bits of metal whine through the air. I discover that my ditch contains a few inches of water. I raise my head above the level of the road and there, staring about like three prairie dogs from the opposite ditch, are the others. We look at one another without shame and listen for a moment.
"Let's go," says the red-haired sergeant. "That's just old Jerry sending over one to let us know he's still there." We emerge from the ditch and continue up that road, now dodging behind a wall, now behind a hedge, until we work our way into Gravelotte.
The O.P. is an upstairs room in a thick-walled stone house. We look out the window, careful to stay well back in the shadow and from here we can see for several thousand yards. The lieutenant points out targets on the ground and on the map and gives Lieut. Moore a list of concentration numbers for all the targets in our sector. Since there has been fighting here for over a week and the town has changed hands a few times, the list of concentrations is long. I copy them into my notebook and then the red-haired sergeant shows me the wire back to liaison. Also, he gives me a few useful tips on the science of doing my job and staying alive.
I hook up our telephone and ring liaison. A voice answers and when I have identified myself he asks to speak to Lieut. Moore. In a moment he turns from the phone with a rueful grin and says, "This war sure moves fast sergeant. We've been relieved from this assignment and are to report back to the Infantry C.P. right away."
Back at the C.P. we are informed that due to a change in plans we are to report to another company which is support in the woods southwest of Gravelotte. We pick up our crew and send the halftrack with Chapman, Manning and Temple back to the Service Company of the Infantry Battalion. Vachon, Phillips, Lieut. Moore and I climb into our jeep, pick up a guide from the infantry and go over to the support company in the pine woods. There the company commander assigns us two holes in the hillside, dug in and roofed with pine logs and earth by the Germans and we throw our bedrolls and gear into the holes, camouflage the jeep and look about us.
The pine woods is on the reverse slope of a hill and we are therefore unable to observe any German terrain. We have telephone communication with the C.P. of the infantry battalion and with our liaison officer, but not with our guns. Therefore all we have to do is eat, sleep, write letters, and wait until this company goes into the line. Thrice daily, at 0700, 1230, and 1730 a big gun from Ft. Driant sends over two or three shells which burst in the ravine and on the hillside back of us. The shell-bursts make a big puff of black smoke, splatter mud about for some distance and occasionally a chunk of metal whines through the pine woods. The first shelling catches the company lined up for breakfast, and some of us have difficulty in taking cover without spilling our coffee and hotcakes, but there are no casualties.
At night there is mortar fire and a tank battalion blazes away intermittently from the reverse slope of the next hill behind us discouraging the Germans from using the road coming into Gravelotte from the east. One night a German combat patrol makes a foray into our sector and there is much machine gun fire and shooting up of flares.
On the morning of the fourth day Lieut. Moore receives a message over the telephone ordering him to report back to our own battalion fire direction center. There the S-3 informs us that the battalion is moving north to another position and that Lieut. Moore and I will go forward with twenty men whom we will put out as road guides for the battalion column. We are given a map and an overlay and told to report back ready to move out at 1600 that afternoon.
We look at the map. The new battery position is some 70 kilometers to the north in Luxembourg. This will be another of these all night motor marches; the day has turned cold and already it has begun to rain. The lieutenant and I sigh and go to our battery kitchen for coffee.
< previous :: next >
* Much thanks to Rob Floerke, son of Vernon Floerke for contributing this series by Paul Gawthrop, discovered in his dad's Wartime scrapbooks.