Pursuit: Normandy, 1944

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The two assault companies started in columns abreast down the steep hillside and were immediately lost to view in the underbrush and dark shadows. The battalion command group followed, slipping and sliding, holding on to brush and trees. At the bottom, we passed one of the first wounded, a rifleman bandaged and lying beside the river. He raised himself on an elbow and asked to be helped back to the aid station. I had to tell him that none of our small party could be spared, but that the stretcher bearers with the reserve company were following directly behind and would take care of him. He sank back without complaint; a recurring and troubling wonder is whether he was ever found in the fading light.

We forded the shallow river and started up the opposite slope toward a racket of gunfire beyond the wall of houses. A number of stragglers were drifting back toward the river, each announcing himself to be the sole survivor of his squad or platoon. They were added to our party, and we entered the town through a narrow lane that opened between the houses. The scene inside was worthy of a witches’ sabbath: the night lit by the undulating red glow of burning buildings, all overhung by a pall of smoke. The only orgy under way, however, was that of destruction; parties of Germans were trying to surrender, others were trying to withdraw and doing a lot of yelling; tracer bullets crisscrossed and ricocheted off the rubble. In the general madness and confusion, some who had surrendered undoubtedly changed their minds and slipped away.

 

The two assault companies had dissolved in the debris, and the only usable force still in hand was the reserve company, which pushed along the main street to the eastern exit of the town. On this street was a massive, two-storied stone building, and here the command group stopped and tried to get the battalion into some sort of order. Little was achieved that night. There was no radio contact with the regiment, or with the two assault companies, both of whose commanders were casualties. Delayed word came that the executive officer had also been wounded and evacuated. This was a loss, for while he was ambitious for command, he had been loyal and energetic in helping me.

The night finally grew quiet, and with what seemed undue reluctance, gave way to the usual milky dawn. Vire by day lost its dramatic appearance and became just a dismal place of gray, smoking rubble. The scattered battalion was gradually pulled together and the roadblocks were established. The principal one, farther along the street from the command post, centered around a heavy machine gun of H Company set up in a bomb crater. I was talking with the crew about the field of fire when directly to the front a close column of German troops debouched from a wooded area onto the road and marched away eastward. In the haze of fatigue, and the uncertain visibility, we failed to react to this ideal machine-gun target, the long axis of the marching column being directly in the long axis of the gun’s cone of fire. By the time the gunner had squeezed off a burst, the column was vanishing down a slope into the mist, much luckier than it deserved to be. At the time I regretted this lost opportunity, but not now.

Returning to the command post, I found the wounded had been gathered in the cobbled courtyard, but that the battalion surgeon was not yet there to care for them. I had become accustomed to surgeons who put the job above their skins, and I only now realized that this one, who had joined after St. Lo, was not of that cut. He had been slow getting up on Hill 219, and he was now long overdue in Vire. I sent him word to get there immediately or report to the colonel under arrest. He soon faded completely, and we were assigned a young Puerto Rican doctor who remained a bright spot in the battalion throughout the war.

While I was still boiling over the surgeon’s absence, a German medical officer and his aide men were brought in as POWs. I asked him to give emergency care to our wounded. He agreed, and with the efficiency of long practice his crew cleared a table in a bright room and set out instruments and bandages from field medical kits. With assembly-line precision a dozen or more of our wounded were stanched, cleaned, bandaged, and injected. Along with everything else I had seen of the enemy, this work was professional and competent; there was a sinking feeling that the German army would take much more destroying.

It was now mid-morning. There had been quiet since dawn, but now a shell from the heavy mortar slammed into one end of the building, followed by artillery fire that stirred the rubble once again. The explosions continued walking through the ruins at intervals. The German surgeon called attention to his rights as a POW to be moved from the danger zone, and during a lull in the shelling he was sent to the rear with the wounded.

Late that afternoon the regimental commander again arrived with an order. This time it was to take Hill 251 that loomed over Vire to the east and was probably the observation post for the shelling. The 1st Battalion was to assault a similar hill to the south. A battalion of the 2nd Infantry Division arrived to take over in Vire, and we advanced to the base of 251 for the attack the next morning, August 7.

The move uncovered a German rifleman who had sniped several Stonewallers during the day: he waited too long to pull out and was cut down as he ran along a narrow garden lane. The night at the foot of the hill was quiet, although German artillery continued to rend the town.