Pursuit: Normandy, 1944

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Signs of the retreat abounded, but all the weapons and equipment we passed were smashed; there was none of the litter or usable material that trails a routed army. A farm where we paused briefly had been a depot for bicycle troops, and dozens of the heavy, cumbersome machines in various stages of repair were ranked in the barn and sheds. We admired much of the German equipment: their lower-slung tanks made our Shermans appear awkwardly high and vulnerable; the P-38 pistol was highly sought; their machine pistols and machine guns had a higher cyclic rate of fire than our Brownings and seemed more deadly. I don’t think, however, that any of our lads considered those bicycles as a desirable way to war, or practical as a souvenir. Some probably were repaired by the thrifty Norman farmers and are still in use.

Our zone of advance now centered on the town of Vire, which we found, in due time, to be on the eastern side of a deep ravine cut through the hills by the Vire River. Vire, like St. Lô, is a road and market center, its origins dating back into the Middle Ages. Also, as at St. Lô, the hills and ridges around it are adapted for defense, and the nearer we drew, the harder and more costly became the going.

Late on August 3, near the village of Landelles-et-Coupigny, a heavier than usual volume of artillery, mortar, and tank fire exploded across the front, and we went to ground. Our artillery blasted back, and the stained stretchers were carried to the rear with their loads.

So reminiscent was this of the approaches to St. Lo that I was convinced the rest of the way to Vire would be equally costly. This outlook grew darker with the evening until it developed into genuine gloom, a not unfamiliar emotion for me in the manic-depressive atmosphere of war. Usually able to dissemble it, I knew that I would have to come to grips with it now, for I had seen soldiers led forward by desperation, but I had never seen them follow gloom in any direction other than to the rear.

Even the small forward command-post group—all steady veterans—was too much company for this mood, so, with the radio operator, I went forward through the gloaming to a frontline hedgerow where a small squad of riflemen was dug in, resting or watching. Similar squads were in the fields to either flank, but so compartmented by the hedgerows that each had reason to feel alone in the war.

The evening had grown quiet except for the far-off rumble of heavy traffic as German armor and trucks pulled back from the developing pincer arms. Now and then the rumble was interrupted by the dull crash and dim red glow of shell fire as our artillery sought out the retreat. I stood for a few minutes watching this and the landscape just ahead, hazily lighted by some small phase of the moon. Then, on impulse, I told the radio operator to stay behind while I went up to the next hedgerow. He did not protest, nor did the squad leader, who probably saw no reason to object to a gratuitous outpost. After arranging return signals, I clambered over the hedgerow and crossed the narrow field to the front.

Here, indeed, was a rare solitude that I think can be found only in the dead space between two resting armies. It could be violated by patrols, but this was unlikely considering the German posture of retreat. I felt no fear of disturbance as I leaned into the rank growth of the chest-high hedgerow and tried to think away gloom. There was no military reason for it: we were winning the war. The 2nd Battalion was a responsive command, becoming more effective by the day as the new men turned veteran. Making decisions involving lives was a heavy burden, but it was now an accustomed one, and less a moral weight in that my hide was also at stake—there is little impersonal decision making in an infantry battalion. Besides, these decisions were bounded by what we were ordered to do. For tomorrow, the order was to attack at 0530. Following a brief artillery preparation, the riflemen would maneuver forward, and if the Germans had not pulled out, some would be killed, and more wounded.

 

To this relentless pattern we were committed by discipline, training, pride, and by-I think-a generally held conviction that for Americans in 1944 there was no alternative. It was while groping in this dark maze of the mind that a dimly perceived movement materialized on the opposite side of the hedgerow to the left. As fiction the scene that then developed would require only ordinary imagination; to claim it as fact would be absurd. I offer it as a particularly vivid hallucination arising from fatigue long sustained and from the effect of continuing violence on an essentially nonviolent nature.

The scene that came into dim focus was a German patrol moving in my direction. This in itself would have been a sufficient shock; compounding it was a developing awareness that this patrol was not exactly of the Wehrmacht with which we had been in deadly embrace for the past two months, and its movement was as noiseless as the gathering of white ground fog in a low swale to the front.

All of this was registered under the impact of known proximity to an enemy whom I never regarded with detachment at any range. The identification that developed in more detail was with the sepia-toned pictures of the Kaiser’s army in an illustrated history of the Great War that I pored over as a boy.