Rapier to the East . . .



Rapier to the East . . .


Home Stretch

IT was Germany's eleventh hour. The Russian juggernaut was pounding at the gates of Berlin, as the Americans battled for Magdeburg, barely seventy miles away. To the south, the Russians were fighting a bitter battle for Dresden and the Elbe River, while General Patton's Third Army was straining supply lines to the breaking point in a dash from the west. One more powerful thrust and the Reich would be neatly cut in half. This precisely, was the objective of the 6th Armored Division when it moved out toward the Elbe on April 12th, with CT 304 giving close support as part of the spearhead (other elements of the 76th following more slowly), sweeping the path for the advance. For the regiment, which had fought through three hundred miles (500 Kilometers) of Nazi territory in forty-five days, this was a new test of endurance in long movements without rest; of efficiency in maintaining supply lines already severely stretched; of versatility in adapting itself to the tactics of blitzkrieg warfare.
Jumping off from the vicinity of Langensalza, skirting the famed cities of Erfurt and Weimar and Jena, the column moved through terrain ideally suited to tank fighting. Flat as a platter, the Thuringian countryside gave the faltering Wehrmacht small opportunity for delaying tactics and offered no obstacle to the onrushing armor. The advance continued over eighty-five kilometers to the Saale River without incident.
The Germans had abandoned everything, fleeing in the path of an advance against which their few remaining weapons were hopelessly inadequate. Thousands of American, British, Australian, New Zealand, Canadian and French prisoners of war were liberated from their prison camps. The Nazis, who before had herded them on hundred-mile death marches to elude allied armies from west and east, now could find no new hiding place for their prisoners of war. Reversing the procedure, joyfully, hilariously, thousands of enemy troops, demoralized and incapable of giving battle, were rounded-up into the prison cages.

Vive la Liberte!

ALONG roadsides and city streets, the liberated lined up to cheer the advancing columns, which with every passing mile became more like a triumphal procession. In Bad Sulza side-walks were thronged with British and French veterans eager to exchange a few words with their Allies as the convoy inched through city streets. Many had been behind barbed wire since Dunkerque--for five misery-filled years. GIs tossed them cigarettes and candy, as much of it as they had. The British and French responded with wine and cognac and champagne taken from their captors. For here, in this town, the SS had had an important headquarters and supply depot. But now the roles were reversed and the one-time captives were now captors and were in possession--most importantly--of the cellars thereof. The occasion was--to say the least--gala. Joining in the rejoicing were thousands of slave laborers--Poles, Jugoslavs, Dutch, Russians, Czechs, French, Norwegians--who were freed as the column pushed ahead. Here the men of the regiment could see for themselves the first fruits of the victory they had been grinding out since the jump-off from Luxembourg.
As darkness fell the convoy slowed down to a walk. Ahead, were signs of trouble. A squadron of armor roared into the twilight past the infantry elements on a mission to the front. Reconnaissance parties darted off to seek information. A red glow painted the sky to the east and gave warning that the lead tanks were meeting opposition. The Weisse Elster River, here, flowed in a north-to-south direction across the route of the spearhead. Late in the evening, as the column drew near, in the vicinity of Zeitz, the source of the trouble became evident. Regimental CP was at Osterfeld. This town, in a direct line, was fourteen kilometers distant from Zeitz. And Zeitz was the trouble spot with which the infantry would have to deal. Col. Choquette immediately decided that the situation demanded a "command post" (there is reason to believe that, for him, the word was becoming synonymous with "observation post") closer--much closer. Thus, Capt. Hill and his quartering party set out at 0200 of that night to find a new CP.

The town the Colonel had casually suggested was--at a glance--useless. It was rapidly being gutted by fire. The intent of the Colonel being perfectly clear, it was out of the question for the captain, to look for another town to the west. His only alternative was eastwards. Accordingly, he and his party proceeded onwards and at Kretzschau, practically within a stone's throw of the smoking city, ten kilometers closer than Osterfeld, the new CP was opened. Meanwhile, the troops rested. Tomorrow would be a busy day.



QUARTERING PARTY

Kretzschau Incident



FINIS

ALTHOUGH it was not all rest. Even as the troops moved into town, prisoners were moving in also in the beginning of a flood of them which was to appear endless. IPW was working overtime. The Security Platoon detached some of its men to help control the ever-crowing cage. As fast as they could be screened and milked of all possible information they were shuttled back to the Division cage under guard of two jeeps and a detail of men from the I & R platoon. (Thus, to their many other duties was added another which became one of their regular functions from this time on.) Regimental CP was a beehive of activity. The enemy was on the run. The regiment--all battalions--were in hot chase. And so on through the night.
By early morning, all sniper fire in Kretzschau itself had been silenced and the village appeared to be relatively quiet. But reconnaissance and patrolling around the entire area continued and it was on such a mission that two jeeps of Anti-Tank Company encountered heavy rifle fire from behind the long ridge east of the town towards
Zeitz. When one of their drivers was hit, the party was forced to abandon the vehicles and Lts. Wooten and Bliss returned to report the incident to the CP. Promptly, 2nd battalion was alerted.



KRETZSCHAU CP

With two tanks in support, F Company deployed towards the area in an enveloping movement. Their "catch" was a dug - in camp--complete with barracks. The taking of this pocket, a slam-bang business while it lasted, bagged them ninety-five prisoners (including four women who might have been catalogued as German "Wacs"), ten 128 mm AAA guns, radar equipment and a huge searchlight. So back to the town--and more work for the IPW. Here was another prime example of the "sport" of spearheading with the armor and "clearing to road shoulders only." Well --"all's well that ends well."

Shooting Gallery

NO sooner was the "Kretzschau pocket" cleaned up and PWs marched off (to the tender mercies of Sgts. Madausa and Mann) than a new form of excitement made its appearance. This was the Luftwaffe, attacking with thirteen planes, circling around--coming in--circling off--and coming in again. For a solid hour the sky was ribboned with tracer-fire, spangled with black puffs of flak from the guns of the 778th AAA. It seemed as if all the surpressed venom of the men, secreted for the past week, erupted in one fell explosion with the appearance of "Jerry." Every available and worthwhile weapon in the town was manned-by the man who were not there first; and there were at least a dozen men who rushed for each gun. Those who were not at the trigger busied themselves with the chores of ammunition - or fast-changing a gun barrel as some of them burned out. Other just stood and shook their fists at the sky and muttered.
In the regimental CP, at a second story window, the "Old Man" and his executive officer, Col. Porter, stood and craned their necks out to watch the "show"--and saw the finis to it--the flaming climax when a Junkers 88, blazing from propeller to tail-fin, hurtled over the rooftops of Kretzschau seemingly aimed straight at their window--but missed it (by far too close a margin) and plunged into a field a comparatively few yards away.
Just about then, some nameless GI in Kretzschau looked at a calendar--laughed a little shakily--and said: "Whadda ya know-it's Friday the thirteenth!"

"Zeitz was Tough!"

AN industrial city with a peacetime population of 40,000, Zeitz was no pushover. A bend in the Weisse Elster River embraced the city on three sides, forming a defense which dated from medieval days, when it was used as a moat before fortified walls. High ground around the old church dominated the river and the green fields beyond. Tentative probing by the armor had given ample warning that the city would be defended with every trick in the Nazi bag--from 88 mm AA guns to civilian snipers. A hodgepodge of Wehrmacht troops held Zeitz, most of them from Volkssturm units and replacement battalions. Panzerfaust men of the 2nd Air Force had been rushed in the day before. Deployed in and around the city were seven companies of NCO school enrollees.
Infantry would have to bear the brunt of this attack, that much was certain. Col. Choquette gave the assignment to the 1st battalion, with Companies G and H of the 2nd battalion, supporting. For heavy support there were 6th Armored tanks and Cannon Company's howitzers. According to Col. Lawlor's plan, Baker and Charlie Companies, on the left flank, were to approach over two bridges from the north, while Able Company attacked over the large concrete-and-steel structure on the right. Dog and How, heavy weapons outfits, were to split up in support of the attacking riflemen. (It is interesting to note here that Dog Company records that in the first half hour of the battle they fired over 700 rounds. Behind this lies a story of fast and bitter action--but it merely reflects the entire tone of that entire day.)
Sometimes battles go according to plan. This one didn't!
At the same moment that Sgt. Christy, of the 301st Engineers, had arrived to determine whether the bridges were safe, two of them blew up in tremendous explosions. The third was already kaput. Now, improvised methods of crossings must be devised. Baker Company had the least difficulty. Approaching the blown-out bridge, the company commander decided that the troops could cross over on the rubble. But snipers from the far shore were pinning down the company. So " Mac's" heavy machine guns were called up to the river bank to form a base of fire with the riflemen. A rain of lead covered the scouts as they crept over the wrecked bridge and cleared houses nearby. The company followed; and positions on high ground overlooking the town were manned by H Company machine-gunners.
C Company, meanwhile, was having trouble. As he moved up with his company in an approach march along the railroad tracks paralleling the river, Capt. McGrath knew that the bridge had been knocked out. While he reconnoitered for an alternate means of crossing, patrols to the flanks searched out buildings located near the railroad terminal. A burp gun spluttered from the police station. A quick grenade through a window stopped the burp and flushed out forty Nazis. Immediately, as if released by a spring, a new nest of enemy snipers and machine-gunners opened up from the opposite bank; and, still with utter calm, the search for an approach to the crossing went on. (Meanwhile the tanks through their radios had picked up more than combat messages. As the columns advanced the news was passed along by word of mouth: "President Roosevelt is dead!" The attack increased in bitterness.)
When the crossing had been selected, 1st platoon of Charlie Company moved up to cross the trestled overpass leading to the fallen bridge. Just as the men approached Sgt. Christy, the 301st Engineer came rushing up with word that the structure was charged with three 1,000-pound bombs. The fuse wires were cut, and the men struck out, chastened, however, by the thought of what might have happened. Enemy fire was becoming heavier and movement was limited to short, crouched rushes, up to the river. The men scrambled forward into the water, half-wading, half-swimming near the ruins of the bridge. Almost to a man, they were swept off their feet by the swift current amid the debris. But hesitation was "N.G." at a time like this. It wasn't comfortable at all, being a fish in a barrel for enemy machine-guns.
Once on the other side, dripping wet and out of breath, they rushed heavy machine-gun positions and scattered enemy snipers. The 3rd platoon held, the others by-passed into the town. Eight tanks, by this time, had moved up to the trestle across the river and opened up on the buildings near the riflemen's positions. Blasts of 75 mm shells blended with explosions of enemy panzerfausts; fire fights spread and flushing groups plunged into the work of clearing the first houses.
On the right flank, Able Company, too, had made the crossing. Capt. Parker had used his broken bridge to good advantage.


next page: Rapier to the East . . . (continued)

previous page
-- contents