Symphony in B-Flak
Second Movement: FRANCE
I. NORMANDY (Part 2)
On June 25 we left Cardonville in the evening. We travelled until early morning, but could not cover the 47 miles to our assigned position on account of the pockets of resistance which we encountered. We passed through Valognes which our troops had captured on the 19th and Montebourg which had fallen 6 days earlier. These towns had been battered into heaps of rubble, and what we could discern in total blackout presented an eerie picture. For the first time we were in territory so recently captured that dead cattle had not been disposed of, and human corpses had not received decent burial. Our stopping point was a German "88" position which had been shelled and bombed. We emplaced our equipment and spent a few hours "in the sack". Everything, including the paths and barracks, were built below the surface of the ground. It was a well-fortified position, and it certainly must have been hotly contested.
Before noon Capt. Klatte had reconnoitered a route around the pocket of German resistance, and we made our way towards our assigned position. The rain which had begun during the night was still falling. Sounds of artillery and machine gun fire were distinctly audible, and the further we travelled, the louder they became. We were in a zone of intense battle -- the battle for the port of Cherbourg. At this time our forces were fighting in the streets in the outskirts of the city, and not 1/3 of the city had been captured. It was June 26th, and by midnight our forces had captured the port and 2/3 of the city. The port and the entire city formally surrendered the following day. Our site was a very impressive one, since we were situated near Bretteville and Pte. du Heu on a high hill overlooking the port and the city of Cherbourg which we were to protect. In the bay were small, well fortified islets connected to the mainland by narrow bridge~paths - Fort de l'Ouest, Fort Central, Fort de l'Est, and the Ile Pelee with its fort. From our grandstand seat with its unexcelled view we could see the fires raging in the city itself and the heavy shelling and bombing which our artillery and divebombing Thunderbolts were giving these forts. We had requested permission to fire on these forts ourselves, but when we saw that heavier equipment than ours was being employed against them, we understood why we were refused.
The forts put up stubborn resistance, and their 88's returned the artillery fire and gave our ships a shelling. As a daring gesture a number of German E-boats even speeded out into the Channel to torpedo our ships, but our destroyers and torpedo boats were on hand to repulse them. Finally, the action on the islets gradually died off, and this led us to believe that they were surrendering. The city itself, however, continued to flame for several days, and the fierce machine gun and artillery action around us did not cease for some time.
Probably on account of the overcast the Luftwaffe did not put in a strong appearance. The big guns expended 80 rounds at this position.
At 0800 hours on June 29th, before our pits were completely revetted, we received March Order. The 217th, whose landing on the beach had been delayed, had finally arrived to assume their proper mission. We were assigned to protect our ships and the beach installations, and set out for St. Honorine, 53 miles distant. Fortunately, setting up the Battery there was relatively easy, since the revetments had already been built by the outfit we were relieving.
The atmosphere of the position was quite depressing at first on account of the constant rain, but when the sunshine reappeared, our spirits rose. On the 4th of July the Allies had a special celebration. General Bradley ordered every piece of artillery to fire a shell at its specific target at precisely 1200 hours. We pleaded to fire but were reminded that our specific target was German planes, and none were in sight.
The most heartening news for us, however, was the arrival of the "Residue" on July 5th. At Stonehenge the Battery had been divided into two sections. To obtain maximum economy in shipping space only the personnel and materiel absolutely essential for successful operation of the Battery left Stonehenge on June 8. The rest of the men, called the Residue, left with their equipment on June 30 for a place two miles north of Falmouth via Exeter. Eventually they boarded the Liberty Ship "James B. Weaver" at the Falmouth POE. On July 2nd they sailed. Corvettes of the Royal Navy staved off two submarine attacks on their way to Omaha Beach. On July 5th they disembarked and came directly to the Battery. It was indeed a warm reunion.
At this time we received an indication of the intensity of the battle for Caen. From the ocean came the thunder of the 16-inch guns of the HMS Rodney shelling the city. A fleet of Lancasters also flew over in staggered formation, and for the first time we saw the German ack-ack open up. Caen fell on July 9th. It was said that German troop concentration in the Caen sector was the densest that had been hitherto experienced either in World War I or in this war. Our own Battery's firing was rather light during our stay, only 178 rounds being expended by the big guns. It was here, though, that the machine gunners had their first opportunity to fire, and 138 rounds were spent on a low-flying German fighter one morning.
Since we were close to the beach, our stay was, in the main, uneventful. The shelling, ack-ack, and the bobbing barrage balloons served as a constant reminder of our confined situation. Some men from another battery were injured by a mine; this increased our caution.
Finally March Order was given to us on the 12th of July. We were replaced by a semi-mobile outfit which had just arrived from shooting down "buzz" bombs in England. Our destination was Carentan, 27 miles, and we took up our position west of the city. We set up in pits dug by our advance party with the help of some engineers and a bull-dozer. It was a pleasant position with green fields all around us and the mud conspicuously missing. In fact, to characterise our stay in this position as the most enjoyable thus far in France would not be wrong.
For the first time the kitchen was preparing class B rations daily, a welcome relief from all the C's and K's we had been receiving. We saw our first movie in France at the small barn next to our position. The laundry service was made available to us through a French woman who lived nearby, and the price was quite low considering the amount of clothes we had, although we had to furnish the soap, which the French valued very highly. For the first time we were able to spend the French invasion currency, and it was not very difficult to learn how to use it, because the franc had been stabilized at 2c.
There was sufficient activity at this time to keep us on our toes. The Germans were pouring artillery intermittently on the Carentan bridge. For 90mm AA fire we fired only 107 rounds, but this small amount was off-set by the 334 rounds we fired in support of the field artillery.
Our target was the town of Periers, and the road leading from Periers to St. Lo. Reports indicated that the mission was successful, and later when we passed through the city on convoy, we could see the effects of our shelling. It was encouraging to know that we were aiding the doughboys directly. It was here too that we saw our first daylight raiders. Some ME-109's flew over one day and the machine guns and 90's opened up on them. The gunners fired several rounds by independent gun commander's action, and this alone served to ward the planes off. The machine gunners had their first real firing experience here and 1063 rounds were expended.
Many little incidents stand out to remind us of Carentan. Those games of "Ghost" at night in which the loser went to get the coffee turned out to be hilarious sessions. Once some of the fellows were caught firing their rifles and duly punished. Then too the irrepressible "chow-hounds" pilfered all the emergency rations little by little, to everyone else's discomfort (as the argument goes, a stomach has no conscience). Here also we encountered the dreaded inspections on a moderate scale. Latrine boxes were built, and we had paths staked out with white markers. Mutterings about "chicken" were frequent, but there was neither insurrection nor mutiny. A B-24, manned by British personnel, crashed one evening in a swampy area nearby, and, fortunately, several of the crew members survived.
Then came what may be considered the turning point of the war on the Peninsula. On the 25th was the famous 2500-plane saturation raid on a small sector of German held territory, and a segment of the St. Lo-Periers road. The German AA fire was plainly visible. Later we heard that the great American breakthrough had begun to roll. On the 28th Coutances was captured. On July 31st Avranches was occupied. On Aug. 2nd we were in Avranches.