The Battle for St. Lo – Part 2
Meanwhile, Outside St. Lo
By Sgt. Bill Davidson
YANK Staff Correspondent
Before St. Lo.—"Hedgerow warfare" is a new term, which has bludgeoned its way into the military vocabulary and will probably be taught to sweating West Point plebes for many years to come. The hedgerows in this part of the front must be seen to be believed. They are six feet high and six feet thick, and form breastworks which line every road and every field. These hedgerows were here generations before the kings of Normandy imported them to the cattle-raising sections of England, and they have been packed down into cement-like hardness by the pressure of centuries. I have seen 88mm. and 105mm. shells score direct hits on hedgerows—and blast holes barely large enough for two men to squeeze through together.
Because of the hedgerows, you can't see the enemy. The front is fluid, and often you don't know whether the field next to you is occupied by friend or foe. It's like a huge game of cops and robbers, with all the chips down, and our men find themselves chasing around in circles, trying to catch the enemy from the rear. They rarely speak of having advanced a mile. Instead, it's, "We advanced eleven hedgerows,” or, "We advanced eleven fields." Normally “No Man's Land” is the width of a single field, but sometimes it's only the width of a single hedgerow. This happens after prolonged firing, when both sides are regrouping and are too tired to move much. Then our men hear the Jerries talking a few feet away on the other side of the hedge.
This kind of warfare is right up the alley of the sniper, bazooka expert, rifleman, and automatic-weapons handler. Conversely, it's death on tanks and armored cars, as scores of German vehicles burned to a peculiar shade of pink along the roadsides give mute evidence. The destruction of equipment is appalling. Vehicles seldom get beyond the first soldier they meet who happens to be armed with a rifle grenade or bazooka. Lt, Jack Shea, a tough, young general's aide who goes up into the line to lead patrols, says: “Give me ten infantrymen in this terrain, with proper combinations of small arms, and I'll hold up a battalion for 24 hours."
The guy on the ground is the big man here, and I there isn't much in the book to tell him what to do. He just uses what he's got and improvises. Right now, for instance, the infantrymen are employing an effective substitute for mortar fire. They fire rifle grenades at a high angle of elevation by firing their rifles from the ground, butts down. The grenade is fused for five seconds. It describes a high arc, travelling forward about 200 feet, and then at the end of the five seconds explodes in the air over the heads of the Germans, who are sheltered from other bursts from the front and sides. This air-burst fragmentation is usually fatal. One rifle-grenade-man in this sector once used his weapon to eliminate an enemy sniper. He spotted the German in an apple tree, crawled up to within a 40-foot range, and let go at the back of the German's helmet. The Nazi disintegrated.
Throughout the fighting, French farmers and their families live in holes dug in cellars, while their houses are destroyed over their heads. When the fighting passes beyond them, or during lulls, children come out to play and farmers bring butter and eggs to the GIs.
These lulls are necessary in hedgerow warfare. After a certain number of hours of advancing through fields, both sides are so worn out that the soldiers must stop to rest, regroup, and gather up the dead and wounded. The word "lull" is a misnomer, of course. Snipers keep on working, mortar and artillery shells plop down, and patrols go out at night. But it's like Sunday in Central Park compared with what's gone before. It was during one of these lulls that I moved up to the front.
The unit I was with—the 29th Division—had launched a big attack the day before to capture high ground dominating the big hedgehog city of St. Lo from the East. The men had advanced all day and occupied the villages of St. Andre de L'Epine and Martinville, cutting the main highway from Bayeux to St. Lo. During the night they reached their objective and stopped to allow another unit on the right flank to catch up. All night the artillery blasted in our ears. The 105s cracked, seemingly in the next field. Farther back, the Long Toms banged with their deep bass tones and shells went rushing overhead like fast freights passing tiny way-stations on the Pennsylvania Railroad line. It's amazing how you learn to sleep through such artillery barrages— that is, when the stuff is going in the right direction.
In the morning the artillery quieted down and I took off in a jeep with Cpl. Al White, of Rutherford, N.J., and Lt. Tucker Irvin, of Washington, Ga. White is 38 years old, a 115-pound ex-newspaperman who fought on the beach on D-Day and had been in or near the lines ever since. Irvin is a quiet, good-looking young Presbyterian College graduate who was brought up with a squirrel rifle in his hands. He's a dead shot with the carbine and once accepted a general's challenge to outshoot anyone in the division. Irvin beat the general, squatting at 75 yards, with five bulls out of five shots, thereby winning himself a purse of 10 shillings.
The jeep we rode in was a combat vehicle, related only genetically to the more or less comfortable Army conveyances which ply the highways behind the lines and elsewhere. The tops of these combat jeeps are stripped off completely, the windshields are turned down and covered with canvas, and there are sandbags on the floor. The sandbags make it necessary to ride with your knees drawn up in front of you, and your legs become numb after a while. But the sandbags also lessen your chances of getting killed by fragments should the jeep run over a mine.
We drove a mile or so down the main highway toward St. Lo, and then turned off onto a dirt road to the new CP. Tired, dirty signalmen and engineers stared at us from the side of the road as we passed. We paused only briefly at the CP, because the cloud of dust raised by the jeep had given away our position to the enemy, who promptly slammed eight rounds of 88mm. shells into the area from a neighboring ridge. “There may be something wrong with the morale of the Germans on the other sides of the front," White remarked, as we ducked into a hole, "but there's nothing wrong with those boys over there. It's an element of a parachute division made up of young Nazis—the same kids the Americans ran into down at Cassino."
We moved down the road, slowly now because of the dust, but speeding up again whenever we passed openings in the hedgerows to prevent any snipers present from getting a decent chance to line up their sights. We were in an area that had been fought over the day before. Dozens of burned-out tanks and armored cars lay in the fields beside the road. Trees were broken and charred where mortar fire had singed them. Armor-piercing shells had punched little round holes in the tops of the hedgerows. The dead had been cleared away, but still the smell of death was everywhere.
We passed a column of medics walking up from the front with the stoop-shouldered shuffles of the intolerably weary. Then we rounded a turn and came into the only street of what had once been the village of St. Andrew de L'Epine.
The village had been pounded by our artillery for days. Not a single building was intact. Usually parts of two adjacent walls remained erect, but the rest of the houses they had served had caved in. In the rubble of one house stood a fine mahogany chest of drawers, undamaged. In the ruins of another house, a little gray kitten played, unperturbed. The village church was recognizable as such only by the framework of a single window which remained. The graveyard had been torn up by shells, leaving fragments of tombstones and long-buried coffins strewn about.
There were signs posted everywhere incongruously proclaiming: "This town off limits for all military personnel." Since there was nothing left of the village, it seemed an unlikely spot for GIs to get in trouble. The signs were standard battalion equipment, however, and meant that the rubble had not yet been cleared of booby traps and mines.
Signs notwithstanding, a handful of doughboys were hanging around the remains of the village street, staring moodily off into space. These men in the front lines don't talk much, nor do they collect souvenirs, plenty of which were flying about. A jeep passed by, towing a trailer loaded with German equipment. "These are for the Air Corps boys," the Pfc. driving the jeep yelled as he went by.
Down the street a squad of dirty, unkempt GIs was shoveling dirt from an embankment to cover the carcass of a cow killed during the fighting. The men belonged to a pioneers-and-ammunition platoon, the American equivalent of the famous British sappers. P&A men can do anything. They are the infantry's own engineers and they build bridges, clear mines and booby traps, carry out wounded, fight in the line, and bury dead cows. This particular group consisted of Pfc. Bill Gayron, of Brooklyn, N.Y.; Pfc. Eugene Jackson, of New Orleans; Pvt. John Leake, of Charlottesville, Va.; Sgt. Edward Wilson, of Middletown, O.; Pfc. Ben Williams, of Piggott, Ark., and T/5 Garland Holdren, of Roanoke, Va. They were all bearded and dirty and dripping with fatigue. The rain had soaked through their field jackets so many times that the cloth now had the consistency of a light suntan shirt.
As they worked, Jackson, an ex-master plumber whose black beard was streaked with gray, told me what they had done during the fighting of the day before. They moved out with G Company early in the morning, firing rifles side by side with the others in the hedgerows. Then six of the P&A men were called upon to blow up a road block, one field away from the enemy so that a Red Cross truck could go into “No Man's Land” and pick up the wounded. They went down the road to the block and when they got there found that our troops had withdrawn so that our artillery could plaster the area. They went to work under the shelling just the same, and in half an hour the road block was destroyed. The job took half an hour because they could only peck away at the obstruction while darting in and out of the hedge to avoid the enemy's bullets. The medics’ truck went in and the P&A men provided covering fire for the medics until all the wounded were cleared out of the field.
The P&A men went back then and were detailed to go into another field, one which the medics had not been able to reach, in order to drag out some more casualties. They crawled in on their bellies and crawled out again with nine dead and ten wounded. They carried the dead and wounded back a quarter of a mile or so and laid them along the road where the medics could see them. Then they were told to get mine detectors and bazookas, and move up again with G Company, which was holding up an attempt to push our men back.
The P&A men cleared about a dozen mines and booby traps and knocked out two German armored cars. They were pulled out of line at midnight. Then each had to stand three hours guard until six a.m. the next morning. After a few hours sleep, they were given the job of burying cows. "And it's a big sunnavbitchin’ cow," said Pfc. Williams.
We left the P&A platoon and moved up a few fields to where some other men were resting in foxholes along a hedgerow, greedily eating their first hot meal in some time. The meal had been prepared for them by T/4 Ray Harrod, of Louisville, Ky., and consisted of chicken, spinach, pineapple, and coffee. The men of the other companies were coming out of the line now. Some of them wandered into the field, their weapons resting wearily on their shoulders. They stood there, staring dumbly at the men eating. They didn't say a word. Capt. Charles Cawthon, of Murfreesboro, Tenn., the company commander, spotted them and without saying a word either, borrowed messkits and handed them full of steaming food, to the newcomers.
Three BAR men of another company came up out of the line. They had just been relieved. They were so tired they could scarcely carry their 20-pound guns. They were a gunner, an assistant gunner, and an ammunition carrier. One of them, Pvt. Foy Gamble, of Florence, Ala., had seen his assistant gunner picked off by a sniper right next to him in the same foxhole. The assistant gunner’s blood was still on Gamble's field jacket. “The Jerries are smart,” said Pfc. Filadelfio Padilla, of Holman, N.M. “They pass up riflemen and go for us automatic-weapons men." " But they ain't smart enough," said Pvt. Joseph Prouse of De Ridder, La. “We advanced 15 hedgerows yesterday.”
Other men drifted into the field, which was less than 500 yards from the enemy. These men had come out of the line earlier that morning, and it was amazing what a shave and a few hours sleep had done for them. They stood around reading Stars and Stripes of the day before and looking over the typed BBC news bulletin sent up to them from the division CP. Some talked about the fighting on the Russian front. They were craftsmen discussing their trade.
"They're booby-trapping more now," said S/Sgt. Guillermo Garcia, a former steelworker from El Paso, Tex. “They've had more time to set them now.” Garcia, a Bronze Star infantryman, had taken his 57mm. anti-tank gun crew up to within 100 feet of the enemy the day before and held off a dozen or so enemy tanks on the flank of the advance. They had fought off a German patrol, endured 24 hours of constant shelling, and he himself had crawled back 100 yards with a field telephone to establish contact with battalion headquarters.
“It's the old men who pull us through every time” said T/Sgt. Clyde England, of Martinsville, Va. "The new men hit the ground and freeze. You've got to fire and keep moving." Sgt. England's heavy-machinegun platoon had moved ahead on the left flank. When they were stopped by an enemy machinegun nest in a hedgerow, he split up the platoon into two sections, each of which fired at the enemy gun from opposite ends of the field. Enemy gunners traversed back and forth for a while, trying to answer both fires. Then the Germans got flustered. They left their gun and ran. As they ran, Sgt, England's guns cut them down.
"If shelling starts and you can't get into a hole," said Pfc. Howard Wells, of Martinsville, Va., " best thing to do is lie on your back. If you get hit, a stomach wound ain't as serious as a spine wound."
Just then a flurry went around the field. The 'Old Man himself—Major General Charles H. Gerhardt, commander of the 29th—was there to speak to them. The general gathered the non-coms under a hedgerow, just out of sight of the Germans on the next ridge. "Men," he said, "you've got a helluva lot to be proud of. You've been in here since the first assault and you've turned in a performance that everyone is talking about back home. You've faced the best the enemy has. You're in a hard racket—the hardest there is. But you all look hard.”
“We've captured the high ground dominating St. Lo. The city has become a symbol." He paused and looked around. "I don't want to make any promises to you men, but one of these days we're going to be relieved. And then there are going to be plenty of 48-hour passes for everyone.''
The general spoke a little longer and left. The men looked at each other stunned, as if 48-hour passes were something out of another world they had forgotten completely about. The sun broke through the overcast and the bluebells became radiant in the hedgerows. The men sat there for a long time. Then T/Sgt. William Rosenthal, of Atlantic City, N.J., got up and trudged silently down the road, past weary columns of men, to the outpost line. He wanted to have another look at the shattered rooftops of St. Lo, which were just barely visible from the edge of the ridge.