Pursuit: Normandy, 1944

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So I shouldered the full weight of the war, going first to La Denisière where G Company had gained control of the crossroads. A German half-track, its radio still crackling Teutonic military jargon, was tilted into a ditch, the bodies of the crew strewn about.

The crossroads lay across the route of a new division being committed to COBRA, and the German command thought enough of its tactical value to waste scarce armor trying to block it. G Company had paid the price: lying near the half-track was a lieutenant who had joined us the week before, unconscious and breathing with the heavy snoring characteristic of head wounds. Other still forms were collected in the shade of a hedgerow.

The day’s cost didn’t end with G Company: the veteran F Company commander and another new lieutenant from H Company were also killed; wounded men and emotional casualties amounted to another squad or so. Add the loss of the battalion commander, and the toll for the pursuit was mounting, though we had hardly started.

That night the German flare plane was accompanied by a bomber but disturbed nothing in the 2nd Battalion except rest. With this second appearance, the flare plane naturally acquired the title of “Bed-Check Charlie.”

The next day was spent in place. Throughout the morning seven Panzers probed across our front, then suddenly turned and began blasting the hedgerows held by E Company. The company claimed disabling bazooka hits on one that was towed away by the others. Later a young German officer in the black Panzer uniform was brought in, his lower jaw a bloody mess of , sywSshed teeth, bone, and flesh. He was on his feet but could make only gurgling noises and hold his head in obviously harrowing pain. Compassion for an enemy, I found, diminishes as a battle drags on—in the Western theater it was to reach a nadir in the misery of the Ardennes-but enough remained that day for me to send him back to the aid station by jeep.

Patrols that night found the Germans gone. The reason, though we did not know it, was that VIII Corps, on the right flank of COBRA, was breaking through to the coastal town of Avranches. Through this corridor, the U.S. Third Army was to sweep westward into Brittany, and eastward to form the southern side of the Falaise-Argentan pocket. The effect was immediate: a pullback of German tank and infantry groups began all across the front.

A departing army, taking menace with it, leaves a palpable void. Into this void the 2nd Battalion advanced the next morning encountering wrecked vehicles and freshly dug roadside graves; in retreat, we found, the Germans buried their dead where they fell.

The great pursuit was on.

The 2nd Battalion’s advance was through full-blown summer fields and orchards, and at times along country lanes marked by tank tracks that posed the constant question of where they might stop. They did not stop that day, and we covered more than two uneventful miles, digging in at dusk and hugging the shadows of hedgerows as the flare plane came over on its nightly swing.

The day had been a rare one of no casualties. My most anxious moments had come on seeing a rifle company trudging in file across the enemy side of a grassy slope, resembling nothing so much as moving targets in a shooting gallery. Company commanders’ careers in Normandy were apt to be brief and allowed little chance to accumulate experience-but this particular tactical rashness was not called to account by the German rear guard.

The next morning we started again over the rolling hills, and in a wide swale passed the debris of a tank battle. The scorched hulks of three Shermans and two Mark IVs were tumbled about, their guns tilted at odd angles. A blackened body lay halfway out of the driver’s hatch of a Sherman, arms extended and fingers crooked, clawing for escape. The passing files barely glanced at the scene; even the most morbid curiosity must have been satisfied long before.

 

That afternoon the enemy added to their delaying force a large-caliber, long-range mortar that lobbed its huge shells in at intervals to avoid being located by our Cub artillery spotter. The mortar immediately became a dreaded thing, its shells able to blow apart anything in a field. One of the first rounds did this to a squad and further dampened any exhilaration of the chase.

The battalion pushed on late into the soft evening of that day, and started again the next morning through a white ground mist. Along the way, German stragglers came out of holes or houses and surrendered. They supplied very little useful information, being too anxious to tell what they thought we wanted to hear about the sad straits of the German army, and their personal anti-Nazi sentiments.

Also uncovered was a young American paratrooper who had been captured on D-day but had escaped to hide out with a farm family. He wore the beret and faded blue work clothes of the French farmer, but remained unmistakably American to more than a glance.