THE SUN SET over leafy green hills, darkening the Saar Valley. What had been bright moments before lay covered in shadow and from Colonel Freshette’s view, its beauty had washed out of the peaceful, serene panorama. At another time the town below would have seemed ready for sleep.
Through his field glasses the Colonel could see no movement. Intelligence said the town was heavily fortified. He saw no evidence. The Germans were a clever bunch and they were well entrenched. A hush like a held breath brushed over the land, not peace, but waiting. Only Company B, camouflaged in mottled green and crouched low on the ridge, looked alert and at the ready.
“Colonel,” a thin voice came to him over the walkie-talkie, “we’re ready.”
Lieutenant Groneau’s platoon had scoured the ridges on either side of the valley as the company marched through. He’d pronounced it safe. Now Captain Bennet had his field pieces in place.
Freshette spoke into the mike. “Three minutes from…mark.”
The energy level went up. His sense of the crack combat troops under his command he likened to a steel spring under tension. The Germans below, hidden amongst the buildings didn’t know…or did they? Their intelligence equaled ours and they’d held the territory for several years. Our side had gambled at every step in this lousy war.
At the three-minute mark the big mobile howitzers behind the hill went off simultaneously. Explosive sounds followed bright flashes from six muzzles and an interrupted barking staccato sound trailed six shells packed with volatile material as they sped to targets below. Gouts of flame erupted time after time. A second later the “Whump” of their payload reached the company’s ears. The little town dissolved in fire and smoke.
At the five minute mark the Colonel gave the signal to move out. The pall that had been in shadow grew into a huge blossom, red fire licking at its base, telltale of devastation on a huge scale. Lines of green began to snake down a hillside devoid of trees but covered in knee high grasses, the men, silent wisps in the coming night. They crouched and moved in an interrupted pattern, taking advantage of what cover they found. They relied most on the smoke cloud below to make them poor targets.
No shots came from the town. Freshette wondered. Could Intelligence be wrong? He’d had his communique for two days. Could the Germans have evacuated this important crossroads?
“Corporal! Get me Lieutenants Riley and Germaine.”
Corporal George called to the two flanking platoon leaders. In a moment he handed the walkie-talkie to Colonel Freshette. The two flanks were more than half way to the town, leading a pincher wave for the main force.
“Riley and Germaine. What’s your take on the silence?”
Riley, on the left, came back first. “Eerie, Colonel. I expected we’d be engaged by now.”
“No activity, Colonel.”
Just then, mortars arched from the near side just beyond the first row of houses where the smoke thinned and started peppering the main body. The columns hit the dirt. As they could, they rose into a crouch and moved forward, zigzagging furiously. Shouts for Medics came through thinly to the Colonel’s ear. From his vantage at the top, Freshette called for answering fire from the howitzers.
“Captain Bennet, are you onto this?”
“Yes, sir. My spotters are calling position.”
The colonel followed the battle with field glasses. The howitzers made an occasional dent on return fire, but the Germans kept moving their mortars and the field pieces couldn’t keep up. Soon small arms fire began to sound up the valley. The pincers closed.
Suddenly, a section of hillside west of the town rose and raking machine-gun fire spit its deadly message into the left flank.
“Colonel,” Riley reported, “we’re pinned down. They’re cutting us to shreds. Think the howitzers could give us some help?”
“Setting up a fire mission now, Colonel.”
Less than a minute later the field pieces had all turned and began delivering fire onto the machine gun nest. They pasted the hill, four aiming for the nest and the other two firing short to create a smoke screen for the flank. Finally the nest fell silent.
“Still here, Colonel,” he groaned. “Took one in the leg. Captain Bennet’s doing just fine, sir.”
“Colonel?” another voice joined the mix. “Colonel, we have company behind us, sir.”
“Corporal McCarthy here, sir, rear flank. We’re surrounded, sir.”
“Blast! Where’s Groneau?”
“Dead, sir. We got surprised on the eastern side hill. The Sarge got it, too. We’re pinned down, can’t move a muscle. Can you send help, sir?”
“Keep your phone open, Corporal, and your head down.”
The tide of battle had suddenly turned. They were in a trap.
The Colonel’s exec leaned over.
Notting produced it, open to the territory where they lay. “We’re right here, Colonel.”
Freshette studied the map. “How could they surround us if Groneau did his job?”
“Colonel, he acted on the best Intelligence we had. The Germans obviously pulled out and moved back as we came through the valley.”
“Smart bastards. Find out their strength immediately.”
Freshette called to the radio man. “Call for air support, Bugsy.”
The little man cranked up his mobile unit and broke radio silence.
“I gave them our position, sir.”
“Good,” the Colonel said, “stay close.”
Notting disappeared for five minutes, during which time the level of the fighting went up several notches. When he reappeared his face had lost his usual aplomb.
“Best guess, two companies, sir.”
“Damn!” The Colonel hadn’t seen combat before, but he had worked out some brilliant strategies in the War College. Faced with the real thing, what should he do?
“I’m going to order the men forward at a run, Major.”
“Colonel?” It sounded like suicide.
“Intelligence said one company would be left to defend this point. If there are two, we have been outfoxed. My sixth sense says the Krauts have pulled everything out from in front of us except a harrying force to make it look as if the town is defended. Facing that, we’d have no choice but to surrender. That I will never do. Corporal!”
Freshette reached for the Corporal’s walkie-talkie.
“Company B, drive for the town. Do it now! That is an order.”
To Notting he said, “Major, get as much materiel down the hill as you can. Move out.”
“Yes, sir.” Notting went to work.
Well trained officers, non-coms and soldiers pulled up stakes and ran like the wind. They encountered sporadic gunfire. Every so often a soldier would drop to his knee and fire several rounds at the last point of light he’d seen. As the first wave reached the devastated buildings, suddenly all firing stopped. Company B swept in on a blanket of its own fire. It met no resistance.
Dienstadt, a town of three thousand people, he thought. The town had been evacuated, herded into the hills. Their sympathies were not with the Nazi army. The Americans piled behind the remnants of buildings and turned to fight.
“What’s our company strength, Major?” the Colonel asked.
“Best guess, seventy percent, Colonel.”
“Secure the town and find any usable cellars. Watch for mines and booby traps. Get out sniper patrols.”
“Yes, Colonel?” The radioman came closer.
“Give the Air Force our new position. Tell them to come in tight and sweep from the north.”
“Just tell them.”
The orders went out. Platoon leaders secured an ever expanding portion of Dienstadt. Mines blew two regulars to bits. Five more fell to snipers, including fourth platoon leader Lieutenant Smyth. Sergeant Gray took over with no time lost.
Detachments of each platoon were sent to find and destroy sniper nests. The heavy concussive sound of grenades sounded intermittently. The rest of the company dug in as the Germans tried a three-point pinch similar to the Colonel’s battle plan. They swept over the hillsides in armored vehicles mounted with machine guns.
Firing from slits and edges of buildings, trying to make every bullet count, they made enough difference to bring the assault to a grinding halt.
Less than an hour later, a spitfire patrol heading east turned abruptly south and began raking the German positions highlighted by the American infantry’s position flares. The battered ground force added jubilantly to the light show they created. Exhausted soldiers got new energy from God knew where. On Colonel Freshette’s command, Company B began to advance, this time to retake the hill they had vacated.
As mopping up continued, Major Notting said to Colonel Freshette, “I wonder where the Luftwaffe was.”
The Colonel offered a tired smile. “On the eastern front is my guess.”
Author’s note: War occurs because of a desire for power by the few, the mortal sin of covetousness and complacency by millions. You want to blame someone; blame everyone. War is destructive of lives and property and it will always be with us. This story of conflict hearkens back to WWII, an example often called upon to illustrate sad flaws in the human character…and their cost.