Pursuit: Normandy, 1944

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A Red Cross canteen truck also appeared at intervals with two representatives of American womanhood to dispense coffee, doughnuts, and paperback books. The doughnuts had the weak flavor of rationing, but some of the books were full bodied. There is a pleasant memory of lying in the orchard grass on soft summer evenings reading MacKinlay Kantor’s Long Remember , a novel woven into the historical fabric of the Gettysburg battle.

A chasm of time and circumstance separated Gettysburg, 1863, and Normandy, 1944, but I found it bridged by the casual and mindless unconcern with which the armies at the two places and times wreaked havoc on each other and on all about them.

The tension and fatigue of the forty-five days of battle just behind us gave way to lethargy. The major general commanding the 29th, however, was a detector and eradicator of lethargy, and on the second day in reserve a training schedule was ordained that included close-order drill. The battalion dutifully and profanely tramped by platoons and companies over rough pasture sharing sweat and temper that helped meld the new men in with the veterans. This was well, for in the long stretch at St. Lo there had been instances of new men being wounded or dying as strangers without names to those around them.

Lethargy got its comeuppance on a dull July afternoon at a training session on hedgerow assault tactics. Little attention was paid to this requirement other than to assign a company to run a squad demonstration for the battalion. The company commander was new and relied on a sergeant who had been in the hedgerow fighting to stage it. The demonstration was not a model for the infantry school. The battalion, trailing along in worse array than the gallery at a golf tournament, could see little and hear less. An awareness of not having given enough direction to the assignment peaked as the general arrived unexpectedly, with his usual velocity, took it all in with a glittering eye, and delivered several pungently phrased judgments. The price for such a lapse during pre-D-day training would have been harsh and immediate, but as a battalion that had pulled its combat weight, we got off with blisters. It was enough to get us back on the job, and to give the troops further cause to wish the war over.

 

Other scenes emerge from the shifting memories of that eight-day interlude. One is of sending a detachment of veterans to represent the battalion at the division’s memorial service at La Cambe Cemetery. On their return, I thought I had never seen such somber young men. Each had a friend or more in the newly mounded graves; a corporal told me in a controlled voice that it looked as though a whole division were being buried there.

This seemed a possibility, for so far as we could foresee, the small, deadly battles for one hedgerow at a time would continue indefinitely. Superiority in manpower, fire power, and air power assured the taking of that next hedgerow, provided the price was paid; but then there would be another and another. This was the close-up, ground-level view of the war. At First Army Headquarters, which dealt in larger views, plans were being completed for COBRA. Central to these plans was a massive air strike that was to blast a corridor through the German defenses that fronted on the St. Lô-Périers highway. Pour infantry and two armored divisions of VII Corps were then to attack to complete the breach.

COBRA was to be launched on July 24, but, once a portion of the bomber force was airborne from England, it was decided that dangerously poor visibility over the target required a postponement. A number of formations diftnot-getthe recall signal and made their runs, some bombs falling short into the attack assembly areas and causing casualties and disruption. The next day, with better visibility and added precautions, the air strike went in again in full force. Once more, however, human error showed its amazing versatility; bombs were again dropped into the assembly areas, resulting in more deaths, including that of a ranking general.

Despite this, the infantry advanced and wedged a way into the bomb-wracked defenses. COBRA was under way and soon promised significant results. The sulphurous war of words between the ground and air staffs over fault for the bombing errors was overladen by the sweet smell of success.

I recite this well-worn history to develop a facet of the infantry battalion’s image of itself: that all things somehow work against it, even those designed to help. We had constant occasion to appreciate Allied air power, but were also wary of it; some claimed it safer to be on the bombing target than near it.

Still ignorant of COBRA, we watched the planes go over, and heard the distant rolling thunder of their carpet bombing. Then came word of the offensive, and an alert order to join it on July 28. Camp was struck early, and late that afternoon trucks arrived to convoy us to the front, the exact location not known.

I closed the rear of the motor march, and so watched the trucks pass at careful sixty-yard intervals, each loaded with serious-faced young men seated on benches on either side, rifles between their knees and packs stacked in the middle. I was again impressed by how little of the “old,” pre-D-day battalion, remained; those who did stood out by indefinable expression and posture.