Pursuit: Normandy, 1944

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The next day, August 5, was also costly. The 3rd Battalion attacked, along with 2nd Armored tanks, and gained the hill. We were ordered up on the right and reached the hill’s broad, flat top just at dusk. A thin line was organized among the tanks already deployed along the eastern edge overlooking the deep, dark ravine of the Vire River and the town on the opposite side. Now and again an ear-splitting exchange of tank-gun fire cracked across the ravine.

The command post was in an ancient barn that held penetrating smells of musty hay, animals, and untold generations of mice. The seriously wounded were sent down the rough hillside by stretcher, and the lesser hurt were collected in the barn for the night.

We remained on the hill throughout the morning and afternoon of August 6, dug in against the intermittent artillery and tank fire. Late in the afternoon the tankers, after communication among themselves, abruptly cranked up and roared away without so much as a wave. The 2nd and 3rd Battalions were now the battered kings of 219. Shortly thereafter came a warning order to prepare to assault Vire.

I had spent the day at the forward edge of the hill where there was a clear view of the town on the opposite and slightly lower heights. Prom here it looked like a picture postcard, the backs of the closely set houses, with red tile roofs, making a varicolored wall above the ravine.

Vire was acquainted with calamity: it had known terrible passages of the Black Death plague in the fourteenth century; innumerable local conflicts of feudal lords; and in the fifteenth century the devastation of the Hundred Years’ War. An Allied air raid had hit the town on D-day, leaving many of its citizens dead or wounded. Now, on a beautiful August evening, its ancient stones were again to be tumbled about, this time in a contention between the Stonewall Brigade, sometime of the Army of Northern Virginia, C.S. A., and a conglomerate of German paratroopers, infantry, and armor. It was, I suppose, an incident of history neither more nor less likely than any other.

 

I had not expected the attack order. The ravine and river, I thought, must be recognized as too formidable an obstacle for our depleted ranks. It seemed logical that the attack be made in greater strength along some less precipitous approach. This wishful logic was exploded by the arrival of the regimental commander with the order that in just over two hours the 2nd and 3rd Battalions were to take Vire and block the five roads converging there.

The colonel was not quite able to conceal his apprehension over the prospect. A big, heavyset man who had taken over at St. Lo, he was having a difficult time pleasing the divisional commander who was his opposite in stature and temperament. The clash building between the two already pointed to the colonel’s departure.

The general kept tabs on his three regiments by posting liaison officers to each to report developments directly to him without waiting for the slower staff channels. The young lieutenant with the 116th was a bumbling type, and in his zeal to hear what the colonel was telling me he stumbled and fell against him—sending maps and overlays spinning.

The colonel, anxious over the mission, and probably resentful of what he considered the general’s snooping, delivered a loud bawling out that left the lieutenant riddled. It also served as comic relief for the dark prospects of the attack.

While the rest of us brought our coughing under control, the colonel straightened out his rumpled dignity and, apparently feeling better, laid out the battalion boundaries and objectives. Then with a blessing of “Good luck, and don’t fail,” he departed with a final admonishment to keep him informed.

I went over the order with the company commanders and, in turn, assigned boundaries and objectives, which they accepted without expressed misgivings. Then, there was a surprise call from the general asking how long I had had to prepare for the attack. He actually sounded a little uncertain, and I found myself foolishly trying to reassure probably one of the most assured men in the army that all would be well.

By now, evening shadows were stretching out, leaving our west side of the ravine dark and highlighting the opposite side. Vire appeared in this light as a medieval town under siege, black smoke rising above it and artillery fire echoing along the ravine. A short stretch of the road entering the town from the southwest was visible, and on this a squat German tank lurched into view, traversed its gun, and began pumping shells down the ravine at a target we couldn’t see, possibly the river bridge. The artillery observer brought in the fire of a battery on it, the first shell hitting directly in front of the turret in a splash of flame. Through field glasses, I saw the tank rock like a poleaxed steer, its tracks shedding dust and its gun silenced; then slowly it crawled out of view toward the town; followed by more shell splashes. So we knew there was at least one tank in Vire, the crew probably with monumental headaches, but counting themselves lucky at having been hit by a high explosive rather than an armor-piercing shell.