Symphony in B-Flak
Second Movement: FRANCE
II. NORTHERN FRANCE (Part 2)
Leaving Ducey at 0500 hours in the morning of August 13th, we were off on a 127-mile trip that took us through Laval, the great industrial and rail junction (also the site of a forced labor railroad camp) and Le Mans, the great lace city of France. People everywhere were jubilant because after many years of oppression and the recent hours of bewilderment, they had just been liberated. At Le Mans, wreckage of the famed "Tiger Tanks" was to be seen in all parts of the city. All along the road were 88's with twisted carriages and spiked barrels, and our nineties rode proudly by their counter-part in the German army. Hundreds of 20mm AA guns were strewn all over roads and fields.
We were riding at our customary 25-mile-an-hour convoy speed, and most of our equipment sported swastikas which made them look so much more important.
We arrived at Alencon in the province of Normandy late in the evening. Upon entering the city we saw five shattered Sherman tanks which had been hit in the liberation of the city. They were formerly manned by the Free French Forces of General De Gaulle. Taking up our position northeast of the city, we hastily set up the battery.
This position was an important one. The "Falaise Gap" was not yet closed, and fierce battles were raging on both the American and Canadian spear-heads, which lacked but 6 miles to complete the trapping of an estimated 200,000 enemy forces. Our mission was primarily to protect the roads and bridges on the main supply route, and secondarily, to prevent air reinforcements of the beleagured 7th German Army.
While eating the first night, we could hear the chatter of .50 caliber machine guns. Two FW-190's could be seen flying low to the north of our position. They disappeared in the clouds and never came back. That same night our guns spoke for their first and last time at this position, and the plane fled quickly. The firing was done at maximum elevation.
We had high expectations of frequent action here, but they soon disappeared. Not only did planes fail to enter the effective firing zone of our guns; they did not even appear in the radar scopes. When orders came to dig in, we found to our dismay that the ground was a brown stone almost as hard as concrete. A nearby engineer outfit brought their bull-dozers, and after a very difficult operation finally completed a hole for the radar, computer and power plants. It was decided to revet the guns by building sandbags from the ground level. Three thousand sandbags were used for each gun, and the work was tedious and hard.
People from near and far came up to visit us; especially on Sunday. Naturally, though unwittingly, they got in everyone's way, and in order to keep them from entering the area, someone ingeniously put up a sign worded in French. The French, after looking at it began to laugh, and after interrogation told us that the sign read, "No Hunting Allowed!"
We spent most of our time sight-seeing, buying "des oeufs" (eggs), and accumulating good food such as potatoes, tomatoes, and lettuce, as well as all kinds of fruit in season at this time of year. This was a welcomed substitute indeed for our old reliable "C" rations.
In our sight-seeing tour, many of the Catholics in the battery were thrilled to be able to see the famous shrine of St. Theresa of the Child Jesus. Although she died in the convent at Lisieux, she was born in Alencon at No. 7, Rue de St. Blaize. The house and adjoining chapel were visited. Here in her own little room we saw St. Theresa's bed, her baby clothes, and bib as well as the other necessities of a child. Next door in a building which is now a convent, we bought cards, pictures, rosaries, and other religious souvenirs. At the church we saw her name and the names of several of her family inscribed in the Baptismal Register.
On August 19 the "Falaise Gap" was finally closed, and the liquidation of a dying Army was under way. In the interim XII Corps was stretching its tentacles toward the Yonne River and Sens.
We lingered at this position for two more days, and some of us witnessed the treatment of women who were Nazi collaborators. Their hair was completely shaved off, and swastikas branded on their foreheads. Then they were forced to face the angry mob of both French soldiers and civilians, who in their heat and fever pummelled them with fists, stones, etc.
The job of sandbagging had just about been completed when the inevitable "March Order" was announced. Three days labor shot to "blazes". Again we piled souvenirs, tables, chairs, and other assorted forms of junk on our vehicles, and awaited the definite IP time (Initial Point).
We were to leave August 20, in the early morning, as soon as 413th AAA Gun Bn. of the First Army relieved us. Since they arrived early and relieved us the preceding evening, we had the night off for a date with our best friend, Morpheus, and were soon absorbed in his pleasant dreams.
After we had been aroused from peaceful slumber, the bright early morn of Aug. 20 found us half-awake in our designated vehicles. A trip of 73 miles had to be accomplished, this time to Chateaudun in the Ille-de-France.
Our route led us back through Alencon where greetings were extended us by the troops of De Gaulle's Free French Forces. The five knocked out, lendlease French Sherman tanks were still in the city, a grim monument of the high pitched battle for the city.
The route was planned with rare wisdom, for all the beautiful women in France lined the shoulders of the road, waving, greeting, throwing kisses, and giving us eggs, flowers and all kinds of fruit. On the approach to Chateaudun we passed a former Nazi air-base, repair depot, and air-strips. Some intact and undamaged JU-88's could be seen, as well as bombs still on their carriers. The air strip was completely wrecked, and the hangars were burned -- hardly a single one of the dozen escaped the fury of the American advance.
The bridge spanning the river Loir was completely demolished, and we were compelled to ford the shallow river with our vehicles.
Riding to our new position, we came alongside the large and beautiful, the ancient and historic Chateau which has given the city its name. Dunois was the first lord, and his Chateau formed the nucleus of the town. The Chateau was built in 3 different centuries: the "Donjon" in the 10th, the chapel in the 13th, and the castle proper in the 16th. The delicate designs and meticulous working of the stone was in itself a work of art, never to be forgotten.
It is here that the famed meeting between the Duke of the Chateau and Joan of Arc (Ste. Jeanne D'Arc) met to consolidate forces that accomplished the defeat of the British at Orleans.
At the base of the immense stone walls were huge caverns in which aircraft parts were stored by the Germans.
This site was completely inactive, so we spent most of our time looking over the historical parts of the city. The city had been conquered three times by the Germans, in 1870, 1914, and 1940; and historical pieces and much valuable data could be found in the city's small but complete museum.
Our stay here was short. The Germans had not attempted to bomb the bridge under construction or the crossroads, so our mission of protecting them was easy to accomplish. On Aug. 23, after only three days, we were on the road again.