Pursuit: Normandy, 1944

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Soldiers of the Kaiser’s Imperial Army and those of Hitler’s Third Reich both wore helmets described as “coal scuttle,” for their resemblance to a household implement of the era of the coal-burning stove. There were marked differences, however, between the cloth fatigue caps worn in the two wars. The cap of Hitler’s army had a long bill and low crown, while the one the Kaiser’s soldiers wore was round, high standing, and had no visor at all—looking something like a modified chef’s bonnet, but distinctively German. Each member of the patrol that I eventually made out wore the round cap of the Kaiser’s army.

Further, as the scene developed, each appeared to be shod in the calf-high jack boots which were universal in pictures of the World War I German army. Jack boots were also favored in 1944, but I had noted that most of the prisoners we had been taking wore heavy shoes and short canvas gaiters. There was another difference. The German rear guards and patrols favored the machine pistol over the rifle, and I don’t recall encountering one not so armed. But this patrol carried only rifles, the barrels slanting alternately right and left.

Old men do indeed forget; memories merge, shift, and take nonesuch shapes. So strong, however, was the impact of the antique figures and the aura they projected that they have remained with me intact down the years. It was a hallucination of uncommon power and shock effect.

I have said that the dark figures (there were seven or eight of them) materialized suddenly and silently in space that had been empty. Countering an immediate imperative to leave was a conviction that before I lumbered a few yards those rifles could be leveled for execution as if I were a condemned man tied to a stake. I don’t recall considering my service automatic adequate to the odds.

My uncalculated response was to crouch to eye level with the top of the hedgerow and stare through the rank growth at the darker figures moving toward me in the general darkness, only their upper bodies and rifles visible from my level. Seconds more and they would have been abreast. But then, without signal that I discerned, they stopped and bent below the level of the hedgerow, out of my vision. One can withhold breathing for an eternity, and I did, before the dark battle frieze again materialized above the hedgerow. But now, instead of continuing toward me they turned hard left in single file and in a predatory crouch moved the short distance into the ground fog filling the swale to become dark blobs on its white surface, and then to disappear. The turn had brought each figure into silhouette, and I got the full effect of the caps, rifles, and the jack boots that moved without a whisper through the grass.

Thus, the hallucination passed. Gradually I became aware again of the distant rumble of the retreat, and of the summer rustlings and green smells of the hedgerow. The impressionist landscape to my front, with the coal-black line of the next hedgerow drawn across it, and lighter splash of ground fog athwart its center, held mystery more haunting than menacing.

 

I do not know how long I stood so, and it was without conscious decision that I turned back across the narrow field to our lines, tapping the return signal on my helmet—probably unnecessarily, because the sentries and radio operator must have been able to make me out dimly the entire time.

No comments were made as I rejoined them, and selfpreservation as a commander argued against mentioning that a German patrol from another war had passed by a field away.

The radio operator and I returned to the command post where, except for the man on telephone watch, all were asleep along the hedgerow. The night had the hazy, dreamlike aspect of the glade scene in A Midsummer Night ‘K Dream ; but here a different sort of folly was afoot.

I was aware, though, that my burden of gloom had lifted; lacking another reason, I attribute it to the shock of seeing a sight that never was. None of this says much for my emotional balance, but then there is not much to say for it at that point. Wrapping myself in a raincoat against the dew, I slept.

We were up in the dawn mist, each eating whatever part of the cold field ration he could tolerate. The artillery preparation descended, and we moved forward. Here the script departed from the one I had gloomily foreseen, for the Germans had pulled out, except for a few stragglers waiting to surrender.

Now we were pointed straight for Vire, but across the path loomed Hill 219 (its meter height) dominating the western approaches. We had advanced little more than a mile when the enormously destructive shells from the heavy mortar and artillery (ire exploded along the route. More men went down, and the companies dispersed along the hedgerows. The shelling subsided, but hit us again each time we came under observation from the hill. Early in the evening we dug in, and the 3rd Battalion advanced through our positions for an attack on the hill the next morning. The evening was quiet except for tankgun fire off to the left, where the 2nd Armored was battling for a bridge over the Vire.