"American Ack-Ack", by Ernie Pyle (part 2)
The Germans were as methodical in their night air attacks on our positions
in Normandy as they were in everything else. We began to hear the faint,
faraway drone of the first bomber around 11:30 every night. Our own planes
patrolled above us until darkness. It was dusk around eleven, and we were
suddenly aware that the skies which had been roarinlg all day with our
own fighters and bombers were now strangely silent. Nothing was in the
The ack-ack gunners, who had been loafing near their pup tents or sleeping
or telling stories, now went to their guns. They brought blankets from
the pup tents and piled them up against the wall of the gun pit, for the
nights got very cold and the boys loafed in the gun pit as the dusk deepened
into darkness, waiting for the first telephoned order to start shooting.
They smoked a few last minute cigarettes. Once it was dark they couldn't
smoke except by draping blankets over themselves for blackout. They did
smoke some that way during the night, but not much.
In four or five places in the wall of the circular pit, shelves had been
dug and wooden shell boxes inserted to hold reserve shells. It was just
like pigeonholes in a filing cabinet. When the firing started, two ammunition
carriers brought new shells from a dump a few feet away up to the rim
of the gun pit and handed them down to a carrier waiting below; he kept
the pigeonholes filled. The gun was constantly turning in the pit and
there was always a pigeonhole of fresh shells right behind it. The shells
were as long as a man's arm aad they weighed better than forty pounds.
After each salvo the empty shell case kicked out onto the floor of the
pit. They lay there until there was a lull in the firing, when the boys
tossed them over the rim. Next morning they were gathered up and put in
boxes for eventual shipment back to America to be retooled for further
Each gun was connected by telephone to the battery command post in a
dugout. At all times one member of each gun crew had a telephone to his
ear. When a plane was picked up within range, the battery commander gave
a telephonic order, "Stand by!" Each gun commander shouted the order to
his crew, and the boys all jumped to their positions. Everybody in the
crew knew his job and did it. There was no necessity for harshness or
short words on the part of the gun commander. When a plane either was
shot down or went out of range, and there was nothing else in the vicinity,
the command was given, "Rest!" and the crews relaxed and squatted or lay
around on the floor of the pit. But they didn't leave the pit.
Sometimes the rest would be for only a few seconds. Other times it might
last a couple of hours. In the long lulls the gunners wrapped up in blankets
and slept on the floor of the pit -- all except the man at the telephone.
It was the usual German pattern to have a lull from about 2 to 4 A. M.,
and then get in another good batch of bombing attempts in the last hour
before dawn. The nights were short then -- from 11 P.M. to 5 A.M. -- for
whidh everybody was grateful. Dawn actually started to break faintly just
about 4:30, but the Germans kept roaming around the sky until real daylight
Our own patrol planes hit the sky at daylight and the Germans skedaddled.
In the first few days, when our patrol planes had to come all the way
from England, the boys told of mornings when they could see our planes
approaching from one direction and the Germans heading for home at the
opposite side of the sky.
As soon as it was broad daylight, the boys cranked down the barrel of
their gun until it was horizontal, and then took a sight through it onto
the stone turret of a nearby barn -- to make sure the night's shooting
hadn't moved the gun off its position. Then some of them gathered up the
empty shells, others got wood fires started for heating breakfast, and
others raised and tied the camouflage net. They were all through by seven
o'clock, and half the shift crawled into their pup-tent beds while the
other half went to work with oil, ramrod and waste cloth to clean up and
readjust the gun.
It was 11:15 at night. The sky had darkened into an indistinct dusk,
but it was not yet fully dark. I could make out the high hedgerow surrounding
our field and the long barrels of the other ack-ack guns of our battery
poking upward. We all leaned against the wall of our gun pit, just waiting
for our night's work to start. We had plenty of time. The Germans wouldn't
be coming for ten or fifteen minutes. But no. Suddenly the gun commander,
who was at the phone, yelled, "Stand by!" The men jumped to their positions.
The plane was invisible, but we could hear the distant motors throbbing
in the sky. Somehow a man could always sense, just from the tempo in which
things started, when it was going to be a heavy night. We felt that this
would be one.
A gunner turned a switch on the side of the gun, and it went into remote
control. From then on a mystic machine at the far end of the field handled
the pointing of the gun, through electrical cables. It was all automatic.
The long snout of the barrel began weaving in the air and the mechanism
that directed it made a buzzing noise. The barrel went up and down, to
the right and back to the left, grinding and whining and jerking. It was
like a giant cobra, maddened and with its head raised, weaving back and
forth before striking. Finally the gun settled rigidly in one spot and
the gun commander called out, "On target! Three rounds! Commence firing!"
The gun blasted forth with sickening force. A brief sheet of flame shot
from the muzzle. Dense, sickening smoke boiled around the gun pit. I heard
the empty shell case clank to the ground. Darkly silhouetted figures moved
silently, reloading. In a few seconds the gun blasted again. And once
again. The smoke was stifling. I felt the blast sweep over me and set
me back a little. The salvo was fired. The men stepped back. We took our
fingers from our ears. The smoke gradually cleared. And then once more
the gun was intently weaving about, grinding and whining and seeking for
a new prey.