Symphony in B-Flak
Fourth Movement: FINALE (GERMANY)
II. CENTRAL EUROPE
BRONZE STAR FOR 6TH CAMPAIGN
Part of European Theater beyond a line 10 miles west of Rhine River between Switzerland and Waal River until 28 March, 1945 (inclusive) and thereafter beyond the east bank of the Rhine
22 March, 1945, - (to be announced)
ON the 22nd of March we received orders to move 25 miles with the knowledge that we were to support the crossing at Oppenheim, Hessen, on the Rhine. The first assault crossing of the Rhine by the 3rd Army was made by our XII Corps on the 22nd at 2200 hours. By the 24th two bridges had been built and the bridgehead was secure. On the 25th Darmstadt had fallen and bridges across the Main River at Hanau and Aschaffenburg were seized. Corps established an impressive record: crossing in half a month's time the Moselle, Rhine, and Main Rivers. In one month it had captured 67,000 prisoners and advanced 215 miles.
We were happy to be "in" on the start of things because it promised more activity. As soon as we were in operation, half of each crew began revetting. Enemy artillery was expected momentarily despite the fact that we had selected a low spot free from observation, so we took turns between digging and duty all night. This first night was otherwise un-eventful from an ack-ack point of view for this sudden tactical thrust across the Rhine had caught the Germans totally unprepared. By morning the revetments were completed, and everyone except a skeleton crew "hit the sack". Many of us had become "Sack Artists" by this time, and slept at every opportunity, because regularity as such had long since ceased to exist.
Meanwhile the infantrymen had been hiking past our position by the side of the main road and they continued to file past for two days. The roads were choked with big trucks carrying assault boats, pontoons, and building equipment of all kinds. Separate assembly areas were designated on both sides of the road for miles back, reminiscent of the "Transit Areas" along the main road in the Normandy beachhead. The town of Undenheim was a veritable arsenal, bulging with equipment and supplies. The stage was really set for a big show, and the first act was well under way.
For a change we now enjoyed an IAZ (Inner Artillery Zone). The limits of the IAZ were larger than had ever before been granted to us. Most of the raids, as it developed, came early in the morning so the fellows on duty for the early shift enjoyed the music of the 90's during their breakfast. B's flak was well directed: 564 rounds of 90mm and 1331 rounds of .50 cal. provided grounds to claim one Cat I, four Cat II's, and one Cat III. All of these claims were later confirmed.
There was no lack of excitement here. On one occasion we were attacked with anti-personnel bombs, but sustained neither injury nor damage. The pilot must have been more than annoyed, because he was rocked by the 90's and stabbed by the 50's. The observer on top of the radar gave warning, before he jumped off: "Hey! See that? He's after us; duck." After that the "hot loop" was really hot with excited conversation.
One day a P-47 lost its tail and came down into the river. We were never sure of the cause, although most likely it was German ack-ack.
Another night one sorry Jerry came down the river strafing. He was quickly detected and brought down with a shower of 40mm and .50 cal. fire. He exploded as he crashed, sending up a shower of sparks.
A few more days of minor raids were climaxed by a large-scale attack. It was a very dark night with heavy fog, so Jerry illuminated the whole sky with flares in order to find our bridges. There were a lot of Krauts droning around in the sky -- reminding us of the London raids. The sky was soon filled with 90 and 40 mm fire, and our quartet of big guns added its contribution. Just to give them some of their own medicine, we even brought into play the German 20mm "quad" which the Germans on the Eastbank of the Rhine had abandoned in their flight. Jets appeared again and drew most of the fire, for the exhaust was visible from the ground. Several came down in flames that night, and we felt that we had a great deal to do with it.
Thereafter attacks were feeble and confined mostly to nuisance raids. Far from being stopped at the Rhine, our Army was racing for the interior at breakneck speed.
One morning we were saddened by the fact that Stephen Gabriel, one of our trusty machine-gunners, had been seriously injured and hospitalized. He was hit by a bullet of unknown origin as a low strafer passed overhead.
Since we began to have more time to ourselves, softball teams were organized, and we enjoyed an occasional movie at Oppenheim.
On April 8 we ourselves crossed a pontoon bridge to the Eastern side of the Rhine. It was a short four-mile trip to a position near Geinsheim. We relieved Battery "C" of the 129th AAA Gun Bn., which had moved farther north to Mainz. Our mission was to protect the construction of a permanent bridge named in honor of the late President Roosevelt. The work continued all night under bright floodlights, and we were so situated that we could see the big cranes in operation. It was obvious that the engineers had no easy task because they had to work around the clock.
Good weather prevailed, and there was little activity, so a softball diamond was laid out. Intra-Battery games were started, and some hotly contested games were played. Guns 3 and 4 emerged the winners.
Our Group Commander, Col. Gettys of the 207th, visited us on a tour of inspection, and of course found that "B" Battery was (as always) "on the ball"!!!
Some of our truckdrivers were on a trip for a few days hauling prisoners, DP's (displaced persons), and gasoline. While on their travels they discovered a pistol factory. As a result, they brought back hundreds of spare parts, and were busily engaged assembling pistols for weeks.
About the time that we finished making our huts comfortable with lights, stoves, and benches, we received March Order (as usual). We left early on April 14th in a northeasterly direction.
Most of the 107-mile trip was on one of Hitler's "Autobahns" or superhighways. It by-passed most of the towns and took us to large tracts of open country and farmlands. It was thus a fast convoy. Jokes about Hitler's providing us with such good transportation facilities have been heard ever since.
Our new position was on a hill overlooking Hersfeld, Kurhessen. We relieved the 411 AAA Gun Battalion in providing 3rd Army's Headquarters with ack-ack defense.
Enemy planes frequently combed the vicinity for an opportunity to strafe, but without much success, since AA was in strength along the Autobahn. The most consistent "Bedcheck Charlie" made his nightly rounds at about midnight. We were handicapped by our high position, however, as the targets were all low.
For a period of weeks C-47 Skytrains passed over all day long, presumably transporting gas and supplies to the front and wounded to the rear.
Two days later, the 16th of April, we were on the road again. We continued to make use of the Autobahn during much of the 110-mile convoy, but often had to detour around parts that had been bombed out. Supply convoys towards the front seemed endless and nearly as many trucks hauling prisoners streamed in the opposite direction. Crowded fifty or more men to a truck, the Germans were a sad and forlorn bunch.
Along the way there was a number of temporary POW (Prisoner of War) enclosures, where Krauts were being processed preparatory to permanent confinement. Their appearance was the antithesis of that of a "super-race" and belied Herr Goebbels' farcical propaganda.
In towns with big industries ramshackle barracks housed forced labor of every nationality. Having been recently liberated, they happily waved flags, hidden during an unforgettable period for this happy occasion. Though often not well or contented, they were truly happy for the first time in years.
As the convoy pulled into Weimar, Thuringia, it was overtaken by a messenger with instructions for us to return by the same route to our last position. Our previous orders were "snafu" (situation normal, etc.). Before starting back we took a break directly in front of one of the aforesaid slave labor camps. It happened to be an Italian one. Four pretty young girls came out to talk to us. Most of the men in the Battery "parla Italiano bono". Thus a big "chinfest" ensued. By this time half of their camp had joined them, but we could not tarry longer, as it was rapidly getting dark. We passed out cigarettes and candy and bidding them farewell we continued on our weary way.
The return trip in the dead of night, even with the use of lights, was much slower than the earlier trip in the daytime, but this was to be expected. However, the drone of Jerry's motors necessitated blackout discipline most of the way -- no "cinch" on a night as dark as this one was. We stopped three or four times to avoid detection; the last, just in time. We had to check ourselves to keep from firing our mounted 50's as a suspicious Jerry zoomed overhead. A short distance in front of us he strafed two gasoline trucks, killing both drivers and their assistants.
The rest of the night was slow, uneventful convoy driving. The Battery pulled into position at 0500 hours, confronted with the familiar tiresome hours of emplacement, followed by orientation and synchronization. At 0900 hours we were decidedly weary and ready to collapse in the sack.
The "Sack Artists" were roused the same afternoon, by another untimely March Order. Everyone thought that his legs were being pulled until this order and our recent night ride were explained -- all 3rd Army units had been ordered south. We had long before learned the futility of questioning or trying to understand Army orders, so we packed and lined up at the end of the field, awaiting further orders. That night we slept around the equipment so that on the following morning we should have no difficulty in reaching the IP (Initial Point) on time.
In the early morn of April 18 we took to the road again -- this time 108 miles southward, into Bavaria. We were not very fortunate in the quality of the roads which befel us, so we had to be content with secondary ones. The trip was hot and dusty, and the old desire to travel began to wane, particularly since nothing unusual occurred. Our destination was a position on the northwest sideof Schweinfurt. We arrived in due time, and with the aid of the almost indispensable bull-dozer our revetments were quickly dug and the equipment emplaced.
During our short stay we had no firing since no planes presented suitable targets for the big guns. At night, however, one could see the hostile aircraft strafing the roads and ack-ack machine gun fire ferreting them out of the darkness. One daring raider swept over our position one evening, and the alert machine gunners gave him several bursts.
One of the "cats" had dropped out of the convoy and failed to arrive with us. A few days later, however, the crew members turned up without their vehicle. It had hopelessly broken down, leaving us with only three cats. In its place a wrecker had to be used when we moved, till a new cat was later procured.
On different errands through Schweinfurt various souvenirs were picked up. By now almost every section had a radio of some sort or another. The collecting mania was at its peak at this time, and everything not rooted to the ground was grasped: German helmets, bayonets, rifles, swords and knives.
Schweinfurt as a city did not offer much scenic or architectural beauty, especially in the condition in which we found it. It had been thoroughly bombed and its great ball-bearing factory was in shambles. Several buildlings had been spared, though, and a number of the population still lived there. Finally the anticipated March Order was given after a stay of 6 days. On the morning of the 24th we were off again on another journey.
On that same morning we arrived at Langenfeld after a short trip of only 49 miles. Our mission was to guard N-8, the vital supply route stretching from Wurzburg to Nurnberg and on to the rapidly advancing armored columns. The Luftwaffe, though weak, was still persistent, returning nightly to strafe the roads. One evening, in fact, a zooming plane, its machine guns chattering, roared over our position. The boys who had "bagged it" rolled out onto the ground, not knowing what was happening at that instant. Moments of suspense such as this occurred occasionally but they were few and far between now. A general optimism that the war would soon end was prevalent, and each newscast was attended eagerly.
A memorable event for many of us was the trip we took to [Battalion] Headquarters, for Headquarters at this time occupied the castle that had belonged to Julius Streicher, the notorious Anti-Semite and publisher of the pornographic organ, "Der Sturmer". It was in every detail an authentic castle with parapets, high thick walls, and typical towers. Its interior modernity and luxuriousness impressed all who availed themselves of the opportunity to tour the castle. Embellished with paintings and modern furnishings, it possessed an atmosphere of comfort and well-being. Streicher in a vain attempt to conceal his despicable and atrocious life, had donned this thin veneer of respectability!
On May 3 March Order was finally given. It had been expected, and the prospects of action after this inactivity were most welcome. Victory already loomed very near, and the new analysts prophesied that the ever-certain climax might occur any hour. Yet we had no time to think of all this for we were off on another mission.
At 1700 hours of the same day the convoy halted by the small town of Hohenpolden, about 40 miles northeast of Munich. Our mission had been cancelled. Rumors of all sorts began to circulate, chief of which was that the war had ended. This was not the truth, however, for we soon learned that the III Corps to which we were assigned, had been ordered merely to discontinue operations. The varied emotions with which these revelations were received would have been most interesting to the objective on-looker. The hopeful, yet incredulous look on the eager faces gave way to unrestrained joy. The moment which each individual had dreamed of all these long months was approaching, and an imponderable burden was lifted from our minds. Even when sobering news was disclosed that the war itself had not ended, a spiritual buoyancy lifted all hearts in a common thanksgiving to God that as far as we were concerned the conflict was over.
The next few days were spent in keen anticipation of developments. Each news broadcast found all ears glued to the radio -- listening for the inevitable. On May 7, in the afternoon, the suspense was finally broken. The message came that we had been awaiting so impatiently and so long. It had not been unexpected, yet no one could hide the joy in his heart when he heard: All German land, sea and air forces in Europe were unconditionally surrendered to the Allied Expeditionary Forces and simultaneously to the Soviet High Command at 0141 hours Central European Time, May 7.
It was to become effective at 0001 B hours on May 9.
Later that evening we celebrated by firing all the weapons that we had accumulated from 19th century pistols to the "burp gun". Flares illuminated the area, and not since the 90's had stopped firing had we had such an orgy of sound. Finally the last echoes of festivity died away, and we went to bed with the rarest feeling of self-satisfaction and inner repose we had yet experienced. Visions of home and visions of garrison life mingled with each other, but the morrow would take care of that. We could not wait for the announcement of V-E Day. On the morrow, May 8, we jumped aboard our vehicles and were off on our first mission after the end of the war. Several of our trucks were on "detached service", so it was necessary to shuttle. A guard was left with considerable equipment on the top of a hill near the church at Hohenpolden. For the rest of the Battery, it was: "On to Lichtenfels."