We cross the Saar on the afternoon of February 24. In two days fighting we have cleaned out all the Germans in the triangle between the Moselle and the Saar, from Hilbringen and Tettingen in the south to the junction of the two rivers in the north. Now our objective is to cross the Saar, swing north and take Trier--sometime an important industrial city and still a railhead for the Siegfreid line.
My section--Lt. Fray, Vachon, Temple, Bonicatto and myself go across in assault boats with the infantry, carrying a dismounted peep radio. Some infantry have already gone across and have secured a very shallow bridgehead near Ochfen. Here the German side of the river is a steep hillside, studded with pillboxes and criss-crossed with trenches. Our engineers have smoke on the river, but the Germans in pillboxes on the hills pour machine gun, mortar and 88 fire into us as we swarm across in boats. Although they are shooting blind, mostly the German fire is deadly. Not all the boats reach the east bank of the river; some float silently downstream through the smoke. Nobody in my boat gets hit. We scramble up the hillside and crouch in a German-dug trench until darkness.
The night is cold and clear, with a full moon. At 2200 our company moves out in single file around the hillside and down into Ockfen. This village has been taken in the afternoon, but a few snipers remain. We move silently through the town, past American and German dead in the street, cross a small stone bridge over a creek and work slowly up the slope of a big hill to the south. For two hours we lie on the frozen hillside, waiting for a patrol to move over the hill and contact another company of our infantry, supposed to be digging in on the forward slope of the hill. Twelve hundred yards below us and to their right German mortar and artillery shells still pound the river crossing and somewhere their machine guns still rattle. Across the river American tanks, TDs, and artillery rage savagely, searching for German mortars and battery positions. A salvo of German time fire bursts above the hill ahead of us and we dig slit trenches, scraping at the frozen earth with bayonet, entrenching shovel and helmet. But the German battery fires only that one salvo. We wait, shivering, for the patrol to come back.
Village is Objective
Shortly after midnight we move out again. Our company's mission is to leapfrog the company digging in, infiltrate through the belt of pillboxes and dragon's teeth known to be in the next valley, and seize a small village on the road running east from the river to Zerf. A nice plan, which could work, but it doesn't. Perhaps the moonlight is too bright, or maybe someone kicks a stone into an antitank ditch as we creep through the dragon's teeth.
Half a dozen German machine guns open up together, spraying the hillside with tracer. We hit the dirt and lie motionless while bullets clip grapevines and poles a few inches above our heads. The machine guns yammer hysterically for a few minutes, then settle down to occasional short bursts. I ease my bayonet out of its scabbard and begin to dig in, trying to make my movements deliberate and to avoid making noise.
The word is passed back in whispers: "FO Party forward." We crawl forward slowly through the grapevines and find the company commander. "Those machine guns are in the pillboxes up the valley," he whispers. "Take your radio back up on the hill and see if you can get artillery fire on them. Might make 'em button up so we can get through." We inch our way up the hill, set up the radio and call Fire Direction. Lt. Fray sends the fire mission using a check point reference. He intends to drop the first one well over the line of pillboxes, then creep back on target a hundred yards at a time, to avoid hitting our infantry. But Fire Direction refuses to fire the mission; some of our own infantry up that valley, they say. We crawl back down the hill and tell the company commander about it. He swears and lies still, thinking. A runner crawls through the vineyard with a message for the captain. He reads it, and sighs with relief. "OK," he says. "We ease back up to the top of the hill and wait for daylight." We manage to get out of there without getting anybody killed.
Back on top of the hill is an old German trench. It is deep and long and the whole company gets down into it. Lt. Fray and I find a short spur running off from the main trench, where the Germans have had a machine gun. We and Temple get in there; Vachon and Bonicatto find a spot around the corner in the main trench. As soon as it is daylight, we smoke and eat a K ration. Some infantryman, cold and wet and tired, builds himself a little fire in the bottom of the trench using a K Ration package and a few dry sticks. A small blue pillar of smoke rises straight up out of the trench. Maybe that smoke does it.
The first German shell lands fifty yards north of the trench. The second is seventy yards south. I heard the third one coming and flatten myself in the bottom of the trench. A giant hand shoves down hard on my head and drives my face into the mud and the world falls in on top of me.
Next day I know my own name and serial number, but my head still aches and my ears ring. Concussion, mild, the medics call it. Outside of a skinned nose, I'm otherwise undamaged. Five days later I go back to my outfit. The battery has crossed the Saar and is in position near Pellingen. I walk around through the gun position until I find the Exec pit and report to the 1st Sergeant. "Where's the RO section?" I asked him. "In the hospital mostly," he tells me. "Chapman and Twite are up with the new RO. Bonicatto and Temple went back to a base hospital. Lt. Fray and Vachon are back at the Aid Station for a rest. Got a little too much concussion." I sit down and light a cigarette.
The 1st Sergeant grins at me. "I see you got nice healthy nerves, too, the way you wave that match around. How you feeling?" "My head buzzes a little and I'm not as eager as I was," I admit, "but I'll live." The 1st Sergeant grins again. "Old Man said to tell you to stick around the battery, when you got back and help the Exec Officer." I find the armorer and draw a carbine and some ammunition and when the battery moves out I ride the Exec half-track with Lt. Kelly. The battery goes into position at Olweg, just outside Trier-which has been taken two days before. We stay there two days, shelling German batteries to the east of us. Then we cross the Moselle and drive north to clean out the German pocket left by the 4th Armored on their surprise dash to the Rhine. The remnants of four or five German divisions are milling around in the Moselle; our job is to kill them, capture them, or drive them across the Moselle.
During the next five days I see things done which undoubtedly cause Clausewitz, George B. McClellan, and the guy who wrote all the Field Manuals to spin in their graves like gyroscopes. This kind of warfare heretofore existed only in the minds of Hollywood writers and overworked students of Tactics in OCS. For an armored division on the loose is as unpredictable in its movements as a cowboy on paynight.
Our tanks and armored infantry race along the excellent German roads best their way through the towns and race on to the next one. My battery displaces several times every day in order to keep within range of our forward elements. Several times we roll into position. I run out wit the aiming circle and start to lay the guns-and before I have No. 6 laid I hear my radio-operator yelling: "March Order!" As we move up the roads we meet long columns of back to the prison cages. Once we run into a hornet's nest of German nebelwurfers (6-barreled rocket projectors) and they give us a bad quarter of an hour until our artillery fire silences them. We go through Spangdahlen, Landscheid, Hupperath, Wittlich, and at dusk on the fourth day we pull into Bengal, only a few kilometers from the Moselle. The pocket is clear. Next morning we move back down along the Moselle, across the bridge at Trier and into our old position at Olweg.
For a few days we rest here and perform maintenance on our vehicles. A few miles to the south and east two veteran infantry divisions finish mopping up along the Saar; two battalions of 155s and a battalion of 240s are in position near us and they give the Germans no rest. Those 155s and 240s being notoriously noisy, we do not rest much either. One afternoon we are alerted for movement and get maps to take us to the Rhine. We move out at night. Our objective is Mainz, more than 200 kilometers to the east, on the Rhine.
< 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.