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Tony Gentry

January 23, 1945 – WWII European Theater

I’m warm at home in Bon Air today, typing this with a cup of coffee on my table and my pup Buddy sleeping at my feet. Quite cozy. And I must admit that what my father was up to in France on this day 79 years ago has something to do with my good fortune. Here’s that day, excerpted from my new book WWII Mortarman. Have a cuppa and share in my gratitude:

Lyn’s Company A (my father’s chemical mortar company) got caught up in a brutal two-day battle for the Maison Rouge bridge across the Ill River and the nearby town of Holtzwihr. Three regiments of the 3rd Infantry Division, including the 15th Regiment to which Company A was attached, emerged from a forest west of the river on the night of the 23rd, planning to build a tank-capable bridge across the river, which was about 90-feet wide at that point. When they discovered a wooden bridge already there, they tried to run a tank across it, but the bridge shook so badly that they abandoned that plan and set out to build their own bridge after all. The engineers went to work, knowing it would take all the next day to get the job done.

While they hammered, infantrymen were sent across the old bridge on foot, their tanks and armored vehicles idling on the west bank. Their mission was to somehow hold off armored assault by the Germans, without having any armored support themselves, long enough for a tank-capable bridge to be built across the Ill. They couldn’t see far in the blinding snow, but they could hear the grinding gears of approaching Panzer tanks somewhere across the frozen fields. There were problems at the bridge; important sections failed to arrive, and as the snowy day darkened towards nightfall, the first tank to attempt a crossing collapsed the whole thing.

Then all hell broke loose. On the open plain with their backs to the icy river, the G.I.’s were sitting ducks for what hit them, a whole German Panzer tank battalion and the infantry regiments at their flank. They fell back against a wall of 57-mm and machine gun fire, many swimming the river to escape sure death or capture. American tanks on the west bank fired back at the attackers, forcing a stalemate for one night. Eventually, both sides ceased firing. Their soaked clothing freezing to hard shells on their backs, the American G.I.’s shivered in the dark, huddling beneath idling tanks for the warmth given off by their engines. Others fought the cold by frantically scratching shallow foxholes in the frozen earth, knowing what awaited them come sunrise.

As expected, morning brought a fierce artillery exchange across the river. Somehow, a few units of the 3rd Infantry were able to get across to the east bank on a bridge north of the fighting, pressing forward through snowy woods to the town of Riedwihr, a key north-south crossroads that was heavily fortified. At woods edge, the Germans unleashed a cyclone of tank and artillery fire from the village, forcing the men to take what shelter they could find in holes dug by the exploding shells, where they spent another frigid night, under periodic artillery barrage.

By this point in the war, the Germans had devised a deadly system for repelling infantry assault. Sequestered within the stone walls of Alsatian towns, they first launched fusillades from 88-millimeter cannons that were either free-standing or tank-borne. As one G.I. recalled, “the aggressive resonance of the German 88’s ejaculatory sounds was unique, not duplicated, to my knowledge, by any other artillery piece in World War II. It had the hoarseness of a deadly cough, the baritone echo of thunder, and you could hear it coming. Whump. Whump. Whump.”[1]

Typically, the 88s fired in a straight, ladder-like pattern that could cover a 500-yard depth into Allied lines, shells exploding every thirty yards along each step of that ladder, then repeating the pattern backwards, all in less than a minute. The trick, when the firing began, was to dive into a foxhole or fall flat in between the ladder’s rungs, so the shells stepped over you.

When the 88’s stopped, mortar shells began to fall, raining down with a brief whistling sound as if dropped from the heavens, and making craters in a scattershot pattern as far back as a half mile behind the front line. G.I.’s learned that it was no safer to hide than it was to advance, so they moved forward dauntlessly across open farm fields that surrounded fortress towns, just as machine guns began to fire, scanning left to right as they came. The chemical mortar companies, ears still ringing from the preliminary shelling, went to work laying smoke screens on the fields to hide the infantry’s advance.

If the G.I.’s could make it into the town, then they faced door-to-door fighting with rifles, machine guns, bazookas, grenades, and sometimes fists and knives. If they were forced back, then the German Panzer tanks came forward onto the field, flanked by Wehrmacht soldiers, to finish the job. At Riedwihr, the 15th Infantry Regiment and Lyn’s Company A of the 99th CMB faced just such a relentless barrage.

[1] Kotlowitz, Robert. Before their Time: A memoir. Knofpf: New York, 1997.

If you’d like to read more, WWII Mortarman is available on Amazon at this link: https://amzn.to/3HbHP5B. If you’d like a signed copy or high-resolution photos of the pictures in the book, email me at tonygentry@me.com.

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