Pursuit: Normandy, 1944

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While the intelligence officer was collecting material from the motorcycles, I offered the captain a field ration and we talked about the war, he speaking heavily accented but adequate English. I handed him one of the leaflets that had been showered on the Germans pointing out the hopelessness of their situation and urging surrender. He said, pleasantly enough, that it was silly to expect an army that had fought as the German army had fought for the past five years to surrender to such pieces of paper.

I observed that as far as he was concerned, this was academic. He agreed, but advised me not to expect the German army to fall apart. He complimented the field ration, and I said that if he found that palatable, his army was in worse shape than he realized.

The conversation was drifting into banter as the S-2 arrived with maps and papers from the sidecars. The captain looked at the bundle ruefully as he was carried away by the other POWs on a stretcher improvised from a door. I warned him that our rear-area people often stripped POWs of watches, medals, and anything else removable. He said that German troops did the same, and that I should get the good Luger that had been taken from him. It would have been hard to wish so pleasant a fellow reduced to another lifeless heap on a dusty Normandy hilltop. One of the motorcycles was undamaged, and I used it for a few days, until regiment heard about it and ordered it turned in.

The rest of the day and night was quiet. The next morning, August 9, patrols found no sign of the enemy other than fresh graves and wrecked equipment. We did not know that two days before, some fifteen miles to the southwest, the last German offensive in Normandy had been launched to sever the breakthrough corridor at Avranches through which the U.S. Third Army was rolling. This futile effort was drawing all their resources.

The battalion that had relieved us at Vire now took over Hill 251, and we marched back to join the rest of the regiment in corps reserve in an area southwest of the town, the whole battalion on the march looking like one full-strength company. There was a hot supper waiting, and the next day clean uniforms were issued to replace those we had sweated, fought, and slept in for the past ten days. Current editions of the Stars and Stripes arrived and told of a booming Allied war effort. The German counterattack had been stopped at Mortain after hard fighting, with never a pause in the Third Army columns that were pouring into Brittany and also curving in toward Falaise.

New men arrived to bring the companies up to over half strength, and training was resumed. A white-haired lieutenant colonel from a reinforcement depot also came by saying, very businesslike, that he wanted to observe at first hand the “maintenance job” on the battalion. I am sure that he meant well, and was dedicated to his job of fairly allocating badly strained infantry manpower. The inference, however, that those we had left along the road to Vire, so many of whom I knew so well, were simply worn-out parts to be replaced, struck me as intolerable. I have an unfortunate tendency to sputter incoherently when angry, and I did so then to the astonishment of the well-meaning officer, who must have left thinking that his maintenance work would soon have to include a new battalion commander. But if he reported this unmannerly reaction to his innocent jargon, the regimental commander never mentioned it.

During these few days in bivouac we were visited by the divisional commander, and at a formation the regimental commander presented Purple Hearts and Bronze Stars. They told us that we had done well, and I don’t recall any disclaimers.

There had been losses in all ranks, and reorganization was constant. The one remaining captain was moved up to executive officer, to be killed the following month at Brest. A new operations officer, the fourth in two months, arrived and was to prove a mainstay and a friend. We were both wounded the same day near Aachen, he losing a leg, but never a warm and generous nature. Two surviving lieutenants, and one returning from the hospital, became company commanders. (Newly assigned lieutenants seemed to be mostly Texas A & M graduates.)

Such a litany of change must run through any account of a battalion in combat. It is remarkable that through it all the battalion’s personality remained so constant. The reason must be that despite the losses, enough of the past always remained to provide a continuity of character. New men tended to regard the veterans with respect, and adopted their attitudes and actions. Thus, even a relatively few veterans in a battle-worthy battalion had great influence in keeping it so; by the same token, a hard-luck outfit with a background of failure was very hard to turn around.

The third day in reserve ended in a spurt of activity as we were ordered back to Hill 251, some higher command having decided that the Germans might turn and strike at Vire as they had at Avranches. This proved a farfetched concern that might better have been saved for the Ardennes situation four months hence. Some of the old men pointed out that being deployed had its advantages, for had we stayed in bivouac another day we would have been doing close-order drill.