Symphony in B-Flak
Second Movement: FRANCE
II. NORTHERN FRANCE (Part 1)
BRONZE STAR FOR 3RD CAMPAIGN
European Theater of operations exclusive of the land areas of the United Kingdom and Iceland
25 July, 1944, to 14 September, 1944
AUGUST 2 we found out that we had ended our days as First Army troops and were now assigned and attached to Patton's Third Army. No time was wasted; at 1430 in the afternoon "March Order" was in effect. Via radio BBC, London, we learned that there had been a break-through at St. Lo, and all allied armies were surging forward.
Although the sun was broiling, all worked with a smile, and at heart we felt that this was possibly the beginning of the end; with that in mind, work was a great deal easier.
This was to be a long trip, the longest thus far on the continent, 73 miles to a place in or around Avranches which finally turned out to be Ducey, a small city south-east of Avranches in Bretagne.
On the convoy we saw many dead cattle, horses, pigs, and Germans. It was a grotesque sight, but this we knew was the reality of war.
Rolling along we came to the little town of Periers, where we could
see, first hand, the destruction we ourselves inflicted with our guns.
The crossroads of the town had been the objective and were pulverized.
The route was jammed with the vehicles of the 4th Armored, all going forward.
The armor had priority, and the congestion made a change of course necessary.
Off we went on secondary roads and on toward our R. C. (Report Center),
2 miles south of Avranches. As we rode, time fled quickly by, and before
we realized it, dusk was upon us. We were back on the main supply route
after having by-passed the clity of Coutances. As we approched the road
that leads through the beautiful city of Granville on the sea, towards
Avranches which had fallen on July 31st, we could see ahead of us the
red tracer of 40 mm and the yellow flash of 30mm bursts. In Avranches
there was an all important intersection of two major roads and several
important bridges. These were Jerry's primary target for the night. Illumination
flares brightened the countryside. Strafing caught most of the columns
on the road and the explosions of bombs could be heard all around.
At 0530 in the morning after a breakfast of "C" rations, we were ready to move again.
We could now see clearly the hits made by the Heinies the previous night. The engineers had things in hand for one of their bridges over the Selume river had been damaged a bit but it had already been repaired, and again we took off towards our RC. In an hour we were there and were sent to a field to await further orders. The necessary job of camouflaging done, everyone stretched out on the cool grass and went to sleep.
At 0930 we were up again, and off on another 20 mile trip to Ducey, which was now determined tenable. There we had a twofold mission -- the primary mission of protecting the large Vezins dam; secondarily, the protection of the main route to St. Hilaire, Mortain, and the base of the Brittany Peninsula. We soon realized that we were on one of the spearheads racing down the coast of France.
We pulled up into some fields on the side of a secondary road. Immediately we began setting up, for, as always, haste is imperative. The necessary tasks done in good time, and with skeleton crews for orientation and synchronization, we started looking after our personal equipment.
The drone of several planes was audible, and all heads simultaneously looked upwand. There could be seen 24 planes flying in American fighter formation. The usual question "What are they?" was in the air. Someone shouted FW-190's and ME-109's; then those famous last words: "Heck, the Heinies haven't that many left". Suddenly, they "peeled off" and came zooming down, strafing tank convoys and bombing roads. Our machine guns began to rattle, and by following the red tracers, we could see that bullets surely found their mark. Machine guns fired so much, one of our boys even shot his MG ram-rod at them, "Eh, Bub"?
These 190's and 109's swept back again, headon toward our position, and again our machine gunners shot up more ammo. One came down, and our gun fire finished him off. When he did hit, two kilometers away (1.2 miles), he went up in a puff of black swirling smoke and that good old shout of ours filled the air, "Hitler, count your pilots now".
We then went to work again and awaited "Night Status". The period of free firing within limits in an IAZ (Inner Artillery Zone), which was officially handed down by a Liaison between the Air Corps and Antiaircraft, came finally at 2000, and we were ready to go. The radar began its constant searching of the skies. Almost anything at all in the sky should and would be considered as a hostile target. All equipmient was manned for an all night session. Everyone took the last puff on his cigarette and settled do for the long stretch ahead.
The beginning of the night went by uneventfully, and we all thought that this was one of those positions where nothing but pigeons was to be picked up by the reliable radar.
Early morning and nothing as yet. The radar "bug" at the guns whirled, round and round. Suddenly it stopped and began to move violently back and forth, like a lion stalking its prey. We had our first target, and the phones vibrated with "Radar on Target".
Contrary to tactics up until this position, the Jerries were now flying
bomber formations instead of the usual single raider.
Morning brought to an end all tenseness. We had our delicious "C" ration breakfast and were glad that at last we could obtain some sleep. We began to wonder why so many planes had been up, and it did not take long to find out that the Germans were counter-attacking and had already retaken Mortain which was 13 miles from our position and 20 miles from their objective, Avranches and the sea.
Daylight action was sporadic and our Air Corps, principally the P-47 Thunderbolts of the 9th Air Force, were busy. One day two P-47's came directly overhead, at an altitude of 50 ft. trailing a fleeing ME-109. Our machine guns could not fire for fear of hitting our own aircraft. We learned the hard way that day, that two large objects could not comfortably occupy the same fox-hole at the same time.
Then at last came the thing we wanted to see most. On the night of August 7 we fired, and we heard a cry over the phone, "We hit him; he's on fire!" We all stood there and watched a spectacle unfold itself. The death of a "Junkers 88" in a short one-act play. It was burning fiercely and still flying, directly toward us. Then it altered its course and turned out at a right angle. It was descending slowly. Suddenly it dropped, down, down, and out of sight, and then the black sky reflected the final flare up of explosion and burning gasoline, and it was over. Again as always we chanted: "Hitler, count your pilots now." We did not wait till morning, but a party set out at once to locate and examine the wreckage.
We found ourselves running precariously low in 90 mm ammunition, and rounds were borrowed from other batteries in the battalion. The situation became so grave that the usual practice of firing 3 rounds per gun per course was abandoned, and two and even one round per gun was allotted to each flight. One morning after a night of heavy action we discovered that there were no more than 14 rounds in each gun pit --enough to fire only a few courses.
At 1500 hours that afternoon 4 truck-loads of 90mm ammo arrived with 4 negro drivers. The arrival of the convoy was greeted with shouts of joy and the unloading of the precious rounds began. The drivers decided to stay overnight and curiosity brought them to the guns. There were enemy aircraft in the vicinity and immediately we began to fire. Naturally it startled our visitors. A hit was scored, and a few seconds later the plane burst into flames and crashed nearby. For a while they were tongue-tied. Finally after minutes of stammering and figuratively swallowing pieces of their own hearts, they began to cheer and yell and promised that if we did things like that all the time, "Boy, we'd go through h-- to get you guys that ammo".
As always, "Uncle Bill" was on the rampage for (1) a swimming hole and (2) some Special Service movies. Finally we were taken to the river Selume for baths and swimming. If we wished, we could also have a few drinks, but only in moderation. Here we had our first encounter with diluted cognac and watery wines.
We lived in holes with our shelter halves as protection against rain. We even had liquids and powders to protect us against lice, spiders, mosquitoes, beetles, -- and all the creeping and crawling denizens of our underground homes called foxholes.
During this time the XV Corps had swung north to protect the north-northeast flank of the Third Army and to help pocket the German 7th Army. This was the famous "Falaise-Argentan Gap". Shortly later XII Corps struck east and south towards Chateaudun and Orleans. On August 13 we were called upon to protect road and bridge installations vital to both drives.
We learned a great deal there at Ducey. Those days and nights of battle experience were the toughest thus far. We expended 1212 rounds of 90mm ammunition as well as 6035 rounds of .50 caliber machine gun ammo, and it was not spent in vain. Three planes had definitely crashed as a result of our gun fire, and the raiders did not harm the Vezins Dam which we had been assigned to protect.
Ducey was the completion of the metamorphosis from comparatively green, fresh troops, to thoroughly seasoned battle veterans.