Symphony in B-Flak
Second Movement: FRANCE
II. NORTHERN FRANCE (Part 4)
On Aug. 30, after a trip of 91 miles, we reached the cathedral town of Vitry-le-Francois in the province of Champagne and selected a position on a nearby hill. From our coign of vantage we had a clear view of the mission entrusted to us -- the city and its important road junctions. The town revealed unmistakable signs of battle even from such a distance. It was here that the French Army put up its greatest resistance against the invading Germans in the early part of the war. In addition, Vitry was bombed by the British before its liberation. It was small wonder, then, that the town was filled with rubble and debris.
On the night of Sept. 3rd Jerry attacked and we engaged him, throwing up 41 rounds. He dove to evade our 90's, giving our machine gunners the opportunity to pour 490 rounds at him. In his dive he missed our equipment by inches, forcing the radar observer to drop into the pit below. Our next real excitement occurred about a week later when Jerry returned. He released a group of 22 bombs, luckily duds, just outside of the area. He lingered just long enough for us to send 18 rounds after him; then he "took off" in a hurry.
One particularly dark night 3 rifle shots, the SOS signal, rang out from the vicinity of the river below. A few snipers were known to be hiding in the city's intricate underground sewage system; many of us therefore suspected a trick. However, Cpl. Ross ran down to investigate. It turned out to be an accident at the blown-out bridge. It seems that the driver of a speeding truck failed to see that the bridge was out, and crashed into the gully below. Without hesitation, Cpl. Ross swam the river to give aid. Two of the occupants were already dead, but the third, an officer who fired the shots, still had life in him. "Doc" Meyer arrived in a jeep with more assistance. He administered first aid and rushed the patient to a hospital.
At this time disorganized groups of German soldiers were infiltrating our area in an attempt to make contact with their own lines. This was a definite threat to the security of the Battery, so volunteer patrols were organized to remove these local threats. Sometimes we were aided by members of the unmilitary but spirited Maquis. These French patriots armed themselves with all sorts of weapons ranging from pistols to rifle grenades, and their reluctance to take prisoners alive helped command much of Jerry's respect.
An eager patrol did get some satisfaction one day, as it helped a group of the Maquis capture 12 German soldiers. They had been hiding in a small woods, with the hope of returning to their own lines when we came upon them. They preferred to fight it out, rather than to subject themselves to the harsh, though probably well deserved, treatment of the French. When they recognized American troops, they stopped firing and raised the white flag and begged for first aid for several who had been hit. This was provided as well as transportation to the stockade.
By this time we were comfortably settled and were bartering regularly with nearby farmers. We received eggs, tomatoes, bread, potatoes, and wine in exchange for "C" rations, gum, and of course, cigarettes and candy. The strange part of it was that they were as well satisfied as we. Our enjoyable repasts were usually prepared over open fires early in the evenings.
It was also here that we had our first inspection in ranks since we landed on the beach. It was naturally greeted with supreme dissatisfaction, but we took it in stride with the rest of the "chicken" as being an integral part of the Army.
We left Sept. 11th for an intended trip of 76 miles, but darkness and a German road block ahead necessitated an overnight stop near Aillianville.
The early morning found us on our way once again. We by-passed the road block and took up a position 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) north of the town of Neufchateau in the Province of Champagne. The town itself was in German hands. Our position was precarious. There were no friendly troops between us and the town. In fact, the only other unit in the vicinity when we arrived was a small detachment of Cavalry Reconnaissance, equipped with one armored car. Their assignment was merely road patrol, and they dared not penetrate farther than one mile south of us on a secondary road. An infantry division was moving towards the town from the southeast. They cleared the road block and captured the town in the succeeding days, after it had been pummelled mercilessly by our fighter-bombers. Though we were to see the assault of the town unfold before our eyes, this offered no consolation at the moment. The area was heavily wooded. Will the Heinies move in a northerly or northeasterly direction toward us, or will they move in the opposite direction?
Private Richard "Dick" Severn was the only man who gave his life for his country while serving with this Battery. We will always remember Dick for his companionship, his cheerfulness, his enthusiasm, his refinement. He had the courage of his convictions, and he never swerved from his high ideals. He was an inspiration to all of us by his example. To the members of his family we express our most profound sympathy. They should be a PROUD family! May God grant their son eternal rest.
Taking no chances, Captain Beer was quick to organize a small patrol to provide for the security of our immediate vicinity. The only opposition they encountered was the thorns, briers and thick foliage of the woods. Two of the group somehow lost contact with the rest of the party and encountered a large number of the enemy. It was here that our buddy, Dick Severn, was killed. Corporal Ross, after killing one Kraut, and through a series of daring and skillful maneuvers, succeeded in capturing eight of them single-handed.
Wherever our fighter-bombers appeared in strength, the Luftwaffe generally disappeared. Such was the case in this position, so we had no opportunities to fire the big guns.
Since we had no air activity, the March Order on Sept. 13th was welcome. A 29-mile convoy carried us to a position already occupied by a Field Artillery unit near Hergugney, in the Province of Champagne. There we set up. Our confidence and morale swelled at the presence of the other unit and the realization that we are all part of the "team" was gratifying.
Since both our units were artillery, we had a close affinity. We welcomed the Luftwaffe, but looked to the Field Artillery for protection against the field pieces of the Germans. The Field Artillery, on the other hand, were equipped to counter the enemy artillery, but were insecure against attacks from the air.
Informal "tours of inspection" were conducted to satisfy our curiosity and break the monotony. The 155's barked intermittently day and night, but we had no occasion to give a demonstration.
Sept. 16th found us following the movement towards the front. We covered seven miles and occupied a hill southeast of Charmes. We were still in the province of Champagne. Upon arriving there, we were surprised to find ourselves surrounded by our own infantrymen. However, we were no more surpnised than the infantrymen themselves. For one thing, they thought it strange that a heavy 90 outfit should appear right up on the line, at a spot just captured a couple of days before and still within easy artillery range. Even more puzzling was our conduct. To begin, we arrived, as always, amid the confusion of roaring "cats" and shouting men. After a few warnings that noise and lights at night were particulary dangerous in this position, we gladly imtated the more experienced doughboys.
Again each outfit gave the other confidence. The riflemen now had no fears of air attacks, and we ack-ack men felt even "on the line". There was only one short course for the 90's here, yet it won us a place in the hearts of the doughs.
Early one evening a tank battle could be seen in the distance, and we were told that a "push" was in progress. The infantry advanced, leaving us to wonder what was in store for our recently acquired friends. During the next few days we were glad to hear the whistle of our artillery overhead as it indicated support for the advance.
While here, we experienced a real treat attending a Bing Crosby show in Charmes. Most of the fellows had never seen him in person and were deeply grateful that he should endanger himself for our entertainment. Of course, someone requested "White Christmas", a treat in itself.