An unexpected encounter with an enemy outpost on the fringes of the Hürtgen Forest taught a young infantry lieutenant a costly lesson about the confusion and carnage of infantry combat.
On December 16, 1944, the German army crashed through the Ardennes, overrunning American positions in Belgium and Luxembourg and initiating a panic among Allied commanders that stretched all the way back to Supreme Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Forces (SHAEF) in Versailles. In the six decades since that attack began, the defense of St. Vith, Bastogne and Skyline Drive; the massacre of American prisoners at Malmédy; and the counterattack that eventually threw the Germans back to their start line have been analyzed and studied in minute detail. The Battle of the Bulge has become legend. Often left out in the telling of what would become the largest American land battle of the war is that elsewhere along the front Allied soldiers continued to fight and die in countless smaller and now forgotten clashes with the enemy.
Since October 1944, Americans had been struggling to clear the area between the German city of Aachen and the Roer River. Standing between those two strategic points was the wooded hell of the Hürtgen Forest. Although the pace of the fighting had slowed somewhat, with many divisions that had been battered in the forest being sent to the “quiet” area of the Ardennes, it never stopped entirely. While some units rested and refitted in preparation for a renewed advance in the spring, others, like my own 83rd Infantry Division, continued to chip away at German resistance in the area.
In December 1944 I was a 22-year-old second lieutenant in charge of a rifle platoon in Company E, 330th Infantry Regiment. Two days before the start of the German offensive in the Ardennes, my company was assigned the task of attacking the area around Strass, Germany, which was on the fringes of the Hürtgen Forest. Ours was part of the general American offensive that had been going on for months. The fighting had been costly but undramatic, with footslogging, head-to-head fighting between small groups of men and gains measured in yards, not miles.
On the evening of December 13, my company had entered the town, which was still smoldering from our 3rd Battalion’s earlier struggle to take the hamlet from the Germans after three costly days of fighting. The regiment had spent the last 10 days fighting in the Hürtgen, and of the 190 men in the company who had started on December 3, fewer than 100 remained. The attack, however, had to continue. And with Allied forces stretched perilously thin all along the front, there were no men to spare. It would now be our turn again to advance on the enemy.
The morning after we entered the village we received orders to attack the Germans in woods about 600 yards east of the town. It would be an infantry attack, unsupported by armor or artillery. One principle in infantry tactics is the line of departure, which is the line from which the attack begins. If the attack is scheduled to begin at 0700 hours, the forward elements of the attacking unit cross the line of departure at that time. The line of departure is always within the lines of the attacking force.
East of Strass was a two-story brick house, which stood alone, more than 100 yards from the nearest building in the town. Near the house were two M4 Sherman tanks that we believed were acting as an outpost. Four hundred yards farther to the east, beyond the house, was the edge of the woods—our objective. We were to commence the attack just before daylight in order to cross the open ground before the Germans knew we were there. Our line of departure was a boundary running through the brick house, and our plan was to pass to the left of the house and then proceed straight toward the woods.
Whenever possible, our artillery, mortars, or both, would support us by shelling the enemy position. But the decision had been made to forego this normally comforting assistance to preserve the element of surprise for as long as possible. We hoped to catch the drowsy Germans in their foxholes.
With everything in order, we started walking out of the town in two parallel columns, about 20 yards apart. While fear was with us as it always was, our movements and actions were typical of similar assaults we had made countless times since our combat debut in Brittany in August. This time our plan was to get as close to the enemy position as possible before spreading out into a skirmish line, from where we would rush our foe. The pace was rather slow since we had to walk carefully in order to keep noise to a minimum. We were also concerned about the constant danger of walking into an unseen minefield.
The column on the left was made up of the 1st Platoon, the column on the right was the 2nd. The 3rd Platoon was in the rear acting as a reserve. Instead of the normal strength of 40 men, each of the platoons was down to 18 or 20. The company commander was in the left column, and as the leader of the 2nd Platoon, I was with my men in the middle of the right column.
Even though it was still dark, we could see the outlines of the brick house and the two American tanks. After we had advanced halfway to the house, small-arms fire started to come at us from in and around the building as well as machine gun fire from the tanks. We all instinctively hit the ground. To say that we were surprised would be a major understatement. American tanks should have American soldiers in them, but the Germans had somehow captured the tanks and had turned our own machine guns on us. All the manuals said that the line of departure (which was near the tanks) should have been well within our lines, but we were now being fired upon. We had a fight on our hands before even reaching our starting point.
As soon as the men hit the ground, many of them started firing into the darkness. Both sides had lots of firepower. Apart from M-1 rifles, we had five or six Browning Automatic Rifles (BARs), two light machine guns and a few Tommy guns. Besides the two .50-caliber machine guns on the American tanks, the Germans had their own machine guns, machine pistols and bolt action rifles. Although shocked, I quickly realized that we outgunned them, but not by much. I knew that we had to get off the ground and rush across 100 yards of open field before the company was cut up. And with all the lead now flying through the air, it would not be an easy advance.
I was not among the men who quickly returned fire. When I hit the ground, I first tried to get lower than the surface. Machine gun fire was going right over my head, and I would have been much more comfortable if I had been a foot or two lower than I actually was. I was scared. The crack of the bullets close by told me to keep my head down. Farther away they made a swishing sound, and fortunately for me there were more “swishers” than “crackers.” The trick in this situation is to get your head up when enemy fire is not being directed your way in order to observe, fire and advance.
Flat on the ground, I tried to figure out what to do. For an attacking unit to advance against a firing enemy, it must first attain fire superiority. This meant that the unit being fired upon must get a large enough volume of its own fire going in the other direction to make the other guy keep his head down. Tied to the idea of fire superiority is the concept of fire and movement: While some of my men had to keep up a concentrated fire, others had to move forward. This might sound simple enough in theory, but with enemy fire pouring in the direction of our exposed column, such a textbook maneuver was extremely tricky— and hazardous.
After a few minutes of exchanging shots, the German fire abated noticeably. Had we achieved fire superiority? While I was pondering this, one of our men got up and ran forward. He was immediately followed by others, and soon the entire company had risen up and was rushing toward the brick house. A few of the men might have fired from the hip as they moved forward, but most of us—myself included—just ran as fast as we could in order to cross the open ground as quickly as possible. I don’t know who gave the order or who was the first to move forward, but I do know that it was not me, and I am not proud of this.
I had a pretty good reason for failing to lead the attack. I was pinned down by the enemy machine gun fire cracking over my head, and I was scared. I reasoned that the others were more able to commence firing and move forward because the incoming fire was not as close to them as it was to me. Of course another possibility was that they had stiffer stuff in their spines at that moment. They might have had more guts than me, but Uncle Sam was not paying me $125 a month to wait for someone else to do the job. I should have made a quicker estimate of the situation, decided what to do and then done it. I should have led.
I was so absorbed in crossing the ground that the first rays of the new day appeared almost suddenly. Off to the right of the house I could see a wooden shed. Many of the German soldiers had gone into the house, but I could make out others who were in slit trenches in front of the building. As I approached the house and neared one of the tanks, I stopped running and walked forward cautiously with the butt of my M-1 tucked into my shoulder ready to fire my first shot in combat. Although my company had been fighting the Germans for months, I had not yet had an opportunity to fire my weapon in anger. As a platoon leader, my job was not so much to do the firing myself, as to direct the fire of my men.
Now the situation had changed. In the dim light, I could see a German soldier leap out of a slit trench directly in front of me. He was facing the shed with his back to me. He raised his arms in surrender. Before I could do or say anything, one of my men, I’ll call him “Red,” came around the shed, face to face with the German, and shot him dead as I looked on. I was stunned and frightened. I recognized immediately that if Red’s bullets had missed, they would have gotten me. I was about to accept the surrender of the German soldier who was no more than five feet from me; now he was dead at my feet.
In retrospect I could have turned Red in for shooting a man who was surrendering, but we were busy with other things at the time. The Germans were still firing at us, and we had not yet reached the line of departure. Besides, I was not certain that Red had even seen the German raise his hands. With adrenaline pumping and tension high, it was often not possible to cease hostilities as quickly as an enemy could raise his hands. One minute Red had been pinned down with enemy fire going over and around him, and the next he was face to face with one of the men who had been trying to kill him just seconds earlier. To expect him to stop and be merciful—or unafraid—might have been too much to ask.
Regaining my composure, I joined the rest of the company, which had captured the two tanks and now had the brick house surrounded. The Germans were still inside. Their fire had let up considerably. All that was coming our way now were sporadic shots through the building’s windows from rifles and machine pistols.
Several of my men and I were behind one of the tanks, away from the building and the German fire. Sergeant Ralph White, who had become the platoon sergeant only a few days earlier, after his predecessor had been wounded, saw that we needed to get inside the house quickly. The tank we were behind was only five or 10 yards from the house. Its machine gun was on top of the turret. Turning to me, White asked, “Lieutenant, do you think that machine gun’s working?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Are you going to try it?”
“Yeah, gimme a boost up.”
He then put one foot on the tank’s tread, and I heaved him upward. He crawled over to the machine gun, cocked it and then sprayed the windows and the side of the building with the powerful .50-caliber. The bullets shattered the windows and tore away chunks of masonry. Shards of brick were flying everywhere. Moments later, from an upstairs window, a long-handled “potato masher” hand grenade tumbled through the air. It landed on the tank and exploded in front of White. He was hit by shrapnel when the grenade went off and fell backward off the tank and into my arms. He was unconscious. His helmet had fallen to the ground and blood was pouring from his head, face and hands. It had also begun to ooze through his field jacket.
Almost from nowhere, one of our medics appeared and took over. It was clear that White was badly hurt, but I did not know the full extent of his injuries, nor did I have time to stand around and watch the medic perform his duties. My job was to stop the enemy fire and get into the house.
When the grenade exploded in front of White, I had felt a sting on my right temple. A tiny piece of shrapnel had somehow slipped past my sergeant and got me. It was the slightest of wounds and I scarcely gave it a thought.
Inspired by White’s bravery, the men now rose up and poured small-arms fire into the windows of the house. The only response from the enemy was an occasional flurry of fire from a machine pistol. A German would raise his head above the window sill, fire a quick burst or two and quickly duck down. The firing went back and forth, and occasionally we would hit one of the enemy soldiers who did not duck down fast enough.
We still were not in the house, however. It was getting lighter and we had yet to advance on the woods beyond. I told one of my men with a grenade launcher on the end of his rifle to follow me. My plan was to fire a grenade into the upstairs window and force the defenders to the ground floor, where the rest of my men could deal with them.
“Fire a grenade into that window,” I said pointing. But before he could fire, I said: “Wait, try that window to the right. Just a second, let’s try the window on the other side.”
I could not decide which window to fire into. Before I could make up my mind, someone else fired a rifle grenade into an upstairs window and achieved the desired result. With the enemy downstairs, we threw grenades into the lower windows and prepared to rush through the front door. Just then, the Germans started to come out with their arms raised in surrender. There were about 20 of them.
As we lined up the prisoners to lead them to the rear, one of them, an officer, acted in a haughty manner and was slow, even reluctant, to get in line. Red did not take such arrogance kindly, and he quickly walked up to the German and kicked him in the seat of the pants to get him moving along. I suppose there is some rule of war that proscribes kicking an enemy officer, but at the time I felt like cheering.
As soon as the prisoners were sent to the rear, what remained of the company went into the basement of the house. The basement consisted of two large rooms. It was built like a bunker and was the safest place around. We did not even try that day to advance farther across the open field and the woods beyond. We were stuck out in front of the rest of the American lines, unable to advance or retreat. We had no idea that we would have to fight for the house and that we would lose about a fourth of the company in the process.
When I got down to the basement, a dead German soldier lay sprawled on the floor. One of the men in the company who prided himself on the number of wristwatches he had taken from prisoners saw the body at about the same time I did. Our “watch man” immediately reached down and took a watch from the dead soldier’s wrist. He looked up and grinned triumphantly, as though he had beaten me in a race. I thought for a moment and then pushed back the sleeve of the dead man’s other arm with my foot. As I had hoped, this wrist also held a watch. I turned to our collector and said quietly but firmly, “Please give me that watch.” After seeing so much killing I had become blasé and no longer viewed death with the awe that usually accompanies the end of a life.
Later, I had an opportunity to think about the skirmish. The two American tanks had been knocked out during the earlier fighting by Panzerfaust antitank rockets and were occupied by the German outfit that had established the front line where our line of departure should have been.
With those two tanks to our front, I could not explain why our line of departure had been set near the brick house some 200 yards from the town, but after several months on the line I had my theories. According to the manuals, prior to an infantry attack, the company commander gives a detailed attack order to his platoon leaders, and they, in turn, pass this information along to the squad leaders who then tell the men. After the attack begins, the company commander advises the reserve platoon to reinforce one of the lead platoons as soon as it meets heavy resistance. That, anyway, was how it was explained to us during Officer Candidate School.
It sounded fine in theory, but having been in combat I realized that things seldom worked out that way. We have all played the game “telephone” in which a person whispers a short message to someone next to him at a table, and the message is then repeated from person to person at the table. The result is that the last person to get the message seldom understands what the first person said. I suspected that outside Strass, by the time the company commander’s orders reached the privates in the platoons, some of the original meaning of the captain’s intentions had been lost.
I would never know for certain. The company commander had been wounded early in the attack. One of the two remaining officers nearby took over while we were under fire. It was dark and we were being fired on from a position that we believed had been held by our own men. Confusion reigned supreme.
As I had learned through bitter experience, despite all our training, an infantry assault is not an exact science. It can best be compared to mass confusion. Men were often firing at targets they could not see, and moving toward an enemy whose exact location was uncertain. The human element made everything so unpredictable that in many instances a commander could only point his men in the right direction, send them off and hope for the best.
Our battalion had entered Strass in the dark of the evening before the attack. Already exhausted from earlier exertions, my company had been ordered to hurriedly prepare for an attack before daylight the following morning. This left only a few hours to prepare. Although both our battalion and company commanders could see the brick house and, most likely, the two tanks, they probably believed at the time that the Shermans had moved to their location to avoid fire coming from the woods. Armed with that assumption, they most likely believed that the vehicles were manned by GIs. The men of the 3rd Battalion, who had just finished a brutal fight to take the town and were busy sorting themselves out, must not have been aware that the two tanks had been knocked out. If they did know, their battalion commander had somehow forgotten to mention it to my battalion commander.
Believing that the two tanks were friendly, my company commander probably assumed that they represented our most advanced position and would therefore be a good landmark from which to begin his own attack. Given the need to get the advance going before daylight and believing the ground was secured to that point, it would have wasted valuable time to send a patrol out in advance of the company.
All of these thoughts and theories seemed to confirm my impression that despite the planning and organization, infantry combat always seemed to devolve into individual soldiers fighting their own personal war. An infantryman concentrated on a single enemy or objective and fought doggedly to win his own fight. Thus a battle became a series of little struggles fought simultaneously in which the combatants tended to muddle along until one side or the other declared he was the victor.
As always, such lessons in the true nature of infantry combat had come at some cost. At the beginning of the attack the company had about 90 men. Ten of these were support personnel: mess sergeant, cooks, the supply sergeant and his assistants. Of the remaining 80, 15 crewed the company’s 60mm mortar section, which had remained in Strass as we advanced. Only 65 infantrymen therefore remained to advance on the brick house. At the end of the day, that group was reduced to about 40. The company had lost 25 men in less than an hour.
In the simplest terms we had won the skirmish. We had seized the brick house and driven the Germans from a small outpost in our lines. On the other hand, one or two more such victories and Company E would have been out of business. We would have run out of bodies to continue the fight.
William L. Devitt remained in command of his platoon until January 3, 1945, when he was wounded in action. The father of eight children and the grandfather of 14, he is retired and living in Minnesota. For further reading, see the author’s Shavetail: The Odyssey of an Infantry Lieutenant in World War II, which is available at www.shavetailww2book.com.
Originally published in the February 2006 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.