Yes, I know: it should be a 48-star flag... The 115th A.A.A. Gun Battalion, 1943 to 1945

France (Part 2)

CHERBOURG

"To provide AA Defense of the port and port installations of Cherbourg", the comprehensive field order read. Even if it were not our first move since landing on the continent, the whole thing would have impressed us as being somewhat extraordinary. Although the city had not fallen its capitulation was expected momentarily. It would be some days before the pockets of active enemy resistance in the city and on its approaches were mopped up. At the time this fact alone seemed full of grave portent, but we were to learn in subsequent action that this was to be expected on every move. The intelligence which followed was still more spectacular: The enemy might use chemicals. These attacks, of course, never materialized, probably not so much because the enemy wasn't fully capable of employing a gas, but because it must have been obvious to the most uninformed that it would be folly for the German to use such a weapon in view of our tremendous aerial superiority, planes being the chief means of disseminating the stuff. Another bit of intelligence informed us that G-2 had located some launching sites south of Carentan which might be used to throw robot bombs at Cherbourg. These weapons had been in use for such a short time and nearly all of them directed at Southern England, that we knew very little about them and some of us still regarded them as a little ridiculous -- an ingenious toy. The orders said we were not to engage them. The policy was based on two factors: a) At Cherbourg, a small target, there was a good chance that the relatively inaccurate V1 would land harmlessly in the Channel; b) The missile, hit on an incoming course (the usual AA fire) by 90's would ordinarily explode over the battalion area and might easily do more damage to the high density troop concentrations there deployed (in the Cherbourg operation) than if allowed to follow its course. Map reconnaissance had been made of the area before the battalion ever left Isigny and tentative gun positions had been picked. They were to be deployed to fire on enemy surface craft in the Channel upon request of the Navy -- something else that never materialized. If there were any enemy craft in the Channel, the Navy didn't need any help with them. In fact, they never even spoke to us.

"March ordering" a gun battalion is a time of frenzied activity. There is shouting and profanity. Noncoms yell orders; privates curse under their breath. Tents are knocked down, folded and thrown on trucks. Nineties are put into mobile position and attached to cats. Cables are taken up. The priceless Radar is carefully winched out of its hole. All this would look to a bewildered outsider a condition of utter chaos that could accomplish nothing. But when fox holes have been filled in, when, to our horror and chagrin, the area has been policed (!), when all this and much more has been done, the men haul themselves and their gear onto the waiting trucks and various other vehicles, an orderly convoy is formed on time and is ready to roll.

When our convoy pulled out on the move to Cherbourg, it was about 8 PM and already storm clouds were gathering in the heavy Norman sky. Our route took us through the scarred and battered towns of Isigny and Carentan. The centers of these villages and the important cross roads were piles of wreckage, and other spots throughout showed evidence of "la Guerre". This was nothing, but they were the first cities we had seen and we were impressed. From Carentan we rolled North straight up the Cherbourg peninsula, through the dead cities of Ste. Mère Eglise, Montebourg and Valognes, cities that had taken such a pounding from the land and sea and air that they had simply ceased to exist, not one building stood, hardly a wall or chimney was upright; the bricks were pulverized. From where we sat on our open trucks and precarious perches all over the cats, we could see the entire area of what had once been a busy city, a city where people had worked and lived. Even as we beheld it, it was too much to conceive of such utter destruction. We wondered if any one had survived at all, if any one had lived to return and poke among its ruins. The vagaries of war seem perversely to single out such quiet, unimportant little villages and make it necessary to destroy them with more violence and horror than is visited on the great capitals.

A short time after we had picked our way through the rubbled streets of Valognes and come out again on the highway, we became aware of a great red glare that stood out against the blackened sky -- Cherbourg! We stopped at the RC and reconnaissance parties from each battery and from battalion headquarters went forward toward the burning city to locate positions. The assigned positions were not tenable that night. Battery D's position on an island in the harbor was still very much in enemy hands (and the bridge was blown). Battery B's position could not be reached because of strong pockets of enemy resistance across the two roads leading to it. Battery C's position abutted a field containing resistance. This field was the objective of mopping-up operations of the 8th Infantry Regiment of the 4th Division. Battery A's position was on a cliff dominating Cherbourg; it was still in enemy hands. Some elements of the battalion stopped just short of a hail of machine gun bullets; some were fired on by German snipers or sentries with machine pistols. The situation was so fluid that it was impossible to obtain any intelligence as to the exact location of the enemy's troops or of our own. Because of this fluid situation, because of the darkness, because of the priceless range equipment that might be lost, and the lives, and because the fields were full of mines, it was decided to deploy the batteries in temporary sites ready for gun commander's action for the rest of the night. During that night and the next day there were several skirmishes with ground troops; battalion headquarters and a gun battery took quite a pummeling from an 88 from some fort in the vicinity as yet untaken. Shells dropped all around and many of us had not had time to dig in. But Corps artillery opened up on the fort and the shelling of our positions ceased. All night we heard a German machine gun chattering, but our patrols were unable to locate it. At one point our batteries beat an Infantry company to a machine gun nest and silenced it with their M-1's. Five Krauts fell and several more took off through the woods. At this point an Infantry patrol took over. A German teller mine exploded and blew one of our trucks sky high; four men received minor cuts and bruises, but that was all. Contrary to our firmest beliefs and strongest hopes, we did not engage a single enemy plane the first night. Although we were kept busy on the ground, it is always a boost to fire our big guns. The next night we fired at two planes but we didn't knock them down. The next night it was nine and the next four. We had expected much more from Cherbourg. We were disappointed. On the 29th of June, 3 days later, we left for the beach.

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after two weeks at Isigny, is ordered to the AA defense of Cherbourg on the 25th of June. The night-time convoy to Cherbourg leads through the ruined towns of Isigny, Carentan, Ste. Mere Eglise, Montebourg and Valognes, "cities that had taken such a pounding from the land and sea and air that they had simply ceased to exist." Some positions in Cherbourg are still occupied by the enemy, leading to a few close calls on the ground, some of them involving mopping up operations by the 8th Infantry Regiment of the 4th Division. Firing at enemy aircraft is relatively light, and after only three days, the 115th is sent elsewhere.
 
Updated Tuesday June 07, 2005 09:10:21 PDT
The original text of The Story of the 115th A.A.A. Gun Battalion, published by the unit in 1945, is in the public domain. So how, you may ask, can I claim that the contents of these web pages are protected by copyright?

The answer is that it is my own transcription of the text and images into electronic format, and compilation into these web pages that is copyrighted. In addition, the web design, art, and annotations, plus all material from my father's personal albums are copyrighted original works. I reserve all rights to how all these materials are used. You may not copy them or store them in any retrieval system without permission.