CHAPTER V   MORE RIVERS                             [1] prev contents next

 

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CHAPTER V

MORE RIVERS


Hitler's war machine was getting no reprieve. The Allied drive eastward and the Soviet ramrodding westward were teaching Germany the evil of burning the candle at both ends. In fact this candle was a double-fused buster that was soon to blow sky-high the hoodlums of Nazi Murder Incorporated. The ONAWAY Division was now with the vanguard of the Western Front and giving the enemy the rush act with unstoppable surety. The victory drive was under way, riding roughshod and determined through towns and villages and over rivers formerly only strange names in an orientation class. This was a first-hand geography course in a school of hard knocks where the idea was NOT to get a gold star as from east and west, in the greatest squeeze play in history, the Anglo-Russian twain drew ever closer together.

To the 76th Division the eastward drive now meant crossing the Prüm and Nims Rivers where a few miles to the east, according to Division G-2, the enemy 560th Volksgrenadier Division and dozens of miscellaneous units were holding strong defensive positions, -- holding and waiting in what were the main switch positions [Switch Position: Defensive position diagonal to and connecting, successive defensive positions that are parallel to the front.] of the Siegfried Line defenses. Advance information indicated that the enemy, while inferior in number, possessed sufficient automatic weapons to effect maximum delaying action.

Generally, in fact, the purpose of the Limes Germanicus (not a heinie drink, but Hitler's fancy moniker for the Siegfried Line) appears to have been an attempt to hold the greatest amount of territory with the minimum number of personnel. Inspection of the West Wall defenses in the Luxembourg border area, for instance, revealed no indication that the Germans used artillery or antitank guns in fixed emplacements. The raggedness of the terrain seemed to preclude the use of tanks, therefore extensive use was made of rapid fire infantry weapons to defend against what the Germans believed would be primarily infantry assault. Mobile artillery, including antitank weapons and land mines, apparently constituted the German defense against armor.

In the 76th Division's present sector the rugged terrain again normally would aid the defender and hinder the attacker. The Prüm, winding northwest from Minden where it joined the Sauer River, was nestled in a natural strategic barrier, its fifty to over eighty-foot width running through valleys which, while generally gentle, were overshadowed by steep and heavily wooded walls. This was especially true along the northeast side where the terrain sloped up to a ridge between the Prüm and Nims. The latter, a similarly dangerous barrier, joined the Prüm east of Irrel and extended in a northerly direction. Roughly paralleling the Prüm, though in a much more winding pattern, its twenty-five to forty-foot width was flanked by identically steep walls which served to obscure the area and hinder any scrutiny by ground reconnaissance parties. For tactical details of the rivers, troops were forced to rely on aerial photographs distributed by the Division Photo Interpretation Team. To secure this information, as well as to observe the effectiveness of Division Artillery fire massed on enemy towns, ONAWAY liaison planes flew fifteen missions in the twenty-four hour period ending 2300 the night of 24 February.

Assault troops moved up the steep walls
in preparation for the Prüm River attack . . .

By the night of 24--25 February all movement plans were coordinated and complete. The 2d Battalion of Combat Team 304 plus Company C of the 1st Battalion jumped the Prüm just southeast of Peffingen at 0325 against light enemy resistance. Making contact with the 5th Division on their left flank, a contact thereafter maintained by the 76th Cavalry Reconnaissance Troop, the troops continued their purposeful advance toward higher ground eastward. The veil of a moderate fog had helped the initial group in their river crossing, but by the time the balance of the 1st Battalion set out to utilize the same bridgehead it ran against very heavy mortar fire. Jerry, however, did not have what it takes. By 0730 (25th), supported by the 808th TD Battalion's accounting of five pillboxes and two observation posts, and by the 91st Chemical Mortar Battalion Company C's engaging of enemy tanks, troops and mortar positions, the battalion had reorganized on the east bank. Leaving the 301st Engineer Battalion, which had just completed foot and vehicular bridges across the river south of Peffingen, to the ticklish job of removing mines in that area, it advanced south toward Holsthum where some enemy resistance had developed.

All roads leading into Holsthum were deserted . . . . . .   Each sniper was holding his breath . . . .

The company of 1st Battalion 385th men had been given the mission of seizing two hills north of Irrel. T/Sgt Lester Misik's platoon was to take hill 292 where three pillboxes were known to be located. Driving up the hill under heavy machine gun and artillery fire, the platoon found one pillbox already evacuated and a second capably secured by brother doughs. "The pillbox left for us was in the toughest position of all," said Sgt Misik. "As long as there was a single machine gun position left it could command all forward approaches to the pillbox. We couldn't flank the position because other hills in the area had not yet been taken. There was nothing we could do except make a frontal attack."

With BAR and rifle fire the platoon. forced the enemy to button-up within their fortified position while under cover of the barrage several of the men dashed forward for the close-up finish. Throwing a white phosphorous grenade into a still open embrasure, Sgt Misik beard an agonized cry within the box. In a few moments the steel doors opened and two German soldiers ran into the open, their hands high in the familiar surrender pose. Immediately enemy mortars began dropping their calling cards in the vicinity. Sgt Misik, his platoon, and the kraut PW's scampered for the captured pillbox. "Holy smoke," one GI exclaimed, "and to think that only a few minutes ago I was cursing the thickness of these walls."

Our battle alignment now was as follows: The 3d Battalion of the 304th Infantry was in its assembly area east of Ferschweiler prepared to follow and seize Nims River bridgeheads. The 385th Infantry's 1st Battalion, attached to CT 304 for the Prüm crossing at Holsthum, was continuing a separate attack south between the Prüm and Nims Rivers to seize the high ground north of Irrel. The 2d and 3d Battalions of the 385th, with 3d Battalion 417th Infantry attached, were preparing new positions to support the advance of CT 304. The balance of the 417th Infantry was assembled north of the Sauer River in the vicinity of Ferschweiler. By noon of the 26th the 2d Battalion 304th Infantry had pushed ahead to seize a bridgehead centered at Alsdorf and reaching Wolsfeld to the north. By 2130 the 1st Battalion was at Holsthum in regimental reserve and the 3d was being deployed to the east through Kaschenbach, poised for a thrust at Gilzem.

Additional troops prepared to support the Prüm attack . .
Then pushed across the Nims River . . . . .

That's the way it looks in the chart room. Red and blue grease-pencil markings on acetate-covered maps. Battalion here. Regiment there. "XX" for Division. Arrow for advance. Markings for Corps. Markings for Armies. The crosses and arrows and all the symbols added together equal the sum of the parts, the tortured world of opposing factions faced in battle. The whole is equal to the sum et cetera. That's the chart room. Insular retreat for strategic analytics, far from the maddening world, far enough for the strategists to remain mathematicians; far enough for the X's and arrows and all the colored daubs to remain mathematics and not men.

The crayoned arrow points. It crosses the Prüm River near Irrel to a series of pillboxes and fortified bunkers on the opposite slope. It crawls through a heavily wooded area. It gets within fifteen yards of a pillbox and there it rests. That's where the mathematics dies. That's where the flesh and blood take over. The platoon of Company F 385th men are pinned down by intense machine gun fire. The incisive rat-tat-tat isn't heard in the chart room. The arrow still points. Without warning, Pfc Vincent F. Lamberto makes a desperate dash across fifteen endless yards to the rear of the fortified position and pours BAR lead into an open steel door. The door closes. Lamberto runs in a half crouch around to the front of the box and empties the magazine through an open embrasure. A sudden burst from a machine gun in a nearby bunker almost catches him but he hits the dirt. Again he pours lead into the pillbox. The krauts throw in the towel. "It just made me mad to see them shooting down my buddies," Lamberto said simply.

In the chart room fresh arrows are being drawn . . . . .

 


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