Pursuit: Normandy, 1944

PrintPrintEmailEmail

The convoy trundled slowly down the dusty road that was bounded on both sides by tangles of communication wire, wrecked farm buildings, broken hedgerows, and into St. Lô, itself, a barren desert of broken masonry through which a roadway had been ‘dozed. Here we stalled in the enormous traffic that trails a major advance. The 2nd Armored Division had been committed to the growing prospects of COBRA, and the pressure of its supply train compressed the column until the trucks were head to tail, lurching forward a few yards at a time. Sitting in the middle of such a bountiful target was uncomfortable, but proved uneventful; the German artillery still within range was apparently more concerned with the forward edge of COBRA than with its rear.

 

After two hours, and about five miles south of St. Lô, we were deposited by the roadside, where again we waited while a warm, still, and very dark night came on, the southeastern horizon glowing red at intervals with gun flashes. It was near midnight when our destination order arrived by a jeep that crept toward us, its cat’s-eye blackout lights glowing evilly. The battalion formed up and started down the dusty road that in places stank of burned cordite. After two hours the march became a plodding column, more asleep than awake. All traffic had disappeared; we were in a dark void treading a shade lighter line of roadway; even the war had stopped growling in the distance. About 0300 the assembly area was reached and the companies stumbled off into the fields.

Then it was discovered that Headquarters Company, bringing up the rear, was missing. I told the commander that I would find it and, without going into my performance in closing the column, he observed that this was a damn good idea. I started back over our route looking for what amounted to a moving black dot in a vast expanse of darkness. Sleep was becoming the end of all desire when I literally collided with the captain at the head of his trance-walking company. There was a mumbled exchange over not having gotten the start signal at the last break, and we trudged on to the assembly area. The battalion commander was relieved that the lost had been found, and on this happier note I left the world and its foolish war for the incalculably greater attractions of oblivion.

Awakening came shortly after dawn with the blast of a rifleshot from an adjoining hedgerow, where, it developed, one of the new men had wounded himself in the foot. He moaned in shock and pain that it was an accident; whether so or not, he was our first, and inglorious, casualty of COBRA. The condition of his foot indicated poor premeditation, if such it was.

Drifting away and out of any battalion portrait are the furtive shapes of the stragglers: a few with self-inflicted wounds; many more simply quitting through physical and emotional weariness. These latter, catted combat-fatigue cases, were tolerated, I believe, to an unnecessary and disturbing degree.

By 1944 the infantry battalions were composed largely of draftees. But, given the low degree of coercion applied to keep them there, they were draftees for the army, and volunteers for the fight-as good company as a man could wish, but tragic in that so many were doomed by their own courage.

The 2nd Battalion started southward that morning, feeling its way through a milky-white ground fog that lay over fields and orchards, damp and cool. The regiment’s objective was a sector centering on Moyon, reported sparsely held by the 2nd Armored Division. Battle groups of German tanks and infantry were in front of and behind Moyon.

Our advance found one of these battle groups as we closed in on our objective south of the village. Two newly assigned lieutenants and the scouts of the two leading companies went down in the first blast of machine-gun fire. The Stonewall Brigade’s three battalions deployed along the line of opposition; we had again grappled with the enemy, and whatever our individual reluctance, corporately, we would not let go.

That night, the Luftwaffe mustered a lone plane to drone along the front, dropping flares whose white glare created a feeling of unwholesome exposure.

Intermittent shelling continued the next morning. In the midst of it we were ordered to send a company to a crossroads, called La Denisière, to the rear of our right flank where there was an uncertain report of a roadblock of German tanks. G Company was given the mission, and around that inconspicuous crossing of dusty Normandy roads waged one of those small, bloody battles that leave their mark on those in them, but hardly a whisper in history.

The day, July 30, also left its mark on me; late in its afternoon ’ I received word that the battalion commander had been hit in ’’ the forearm and was being evacuated. I was to take command. My first sensation was one of such complete inadequacy that it seemed important to share it with the regimental commander: I took a jeep back to his command post and advised him that there were undoubted officers standing around better qualified for the job. The colonel did not dispute this, but told me that I had accepted the promotion to executive officer, and I would now go back and command the battalion. My reluctance, however, must have raised doubt as to my qualities of dynamic leadership, for that evening he sent up a senior captain from his staff as executive officer and potential replacement.