Table of Contents
Roy Denman: My Army Service in WW II
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NIGHT PATROL IN THE SIEGFRIED LINE
AT THE POINT OF AN ARMORED COLUMN
TRAGEDY AT MALSFELD
ZEITZ -- A BATTLEGROUND
We had a quick breakfast including hot coffee prepared by our company cooks. Checking our gear and ammunition was critical. I carried a full pack which included a blanket roll, shelter half (one half of a pup tent ), a change of olive drab underwear and socks. Nothing white was allowed in a combat unit for fear a flash of white might give away a position. I also had with me a few personal items such as a small wallet, a few snapshots from home, shaving items and a toothbrush. At this point in my life, all my worldly possessions were on my back.
I was armed with an M-1 Garrand semi-automatic rifle, full cartridge belt, two extra bandoliers of 30 calibre ammunition slung over my shoulders and across my chest, a bayonet and two hand grenades clipped loosely to metal rings on my pack straps. In addition, I carried the ammunition box for the Browning automatic rifle.
Our clothing consisted of lined pants, wool shirts, field jackets (overcoats were too clumsy as they were awkward while running), gloves and wool socks. Our boots were called arctic packs. These were all rubber feet and leather tops including felt linings. They must have been copied from the footwear dairy farmers in Wisconsin wore around the barnyards in the winter months. They were lined with felt and quite warm. The danger was in sweating feet - no way for the moisture to escape through the rubber. If you didn't change sox when your feet got wet, they turned a spongy white color and cracked open under the toes. This caused swelling and bleeding (trench foot), often severe enough to warrant a trip to the division hospital.
Our pack, rifle , ammunition, helmet etc. weighed about 60 pounds. This is what we lugged with us. A good thing we had a tough training schedule back at Camp Fannin.
Our Company B moved out in single file on each side of a narrow country lane. Soldiers allowed about 25 paces between each other in case of ambush or shell fire -- a group wouldn't be killed in a cluster, the survivors could fight.
We hiked down this winding wooded lane in complete silence, all sounds muffled. No need to attract an artillery barrage. This road was a steep descent of about 3/4 of a mile down to the Our river bottom, the border between Luxembourg and Germany. The main road into Germany through Dasburg was on our right about one mile.
As we neared the Our river, we moved off the road onto a trail through the woods. Adrenaline quickened our alertness as we now saw dead German corpses in their blue-gray uniforms next to the trail. I tried not to look closely except in one instance when we had to step over a body and the frozen blue face was staring up at us. They looked ominous to us with their helmets on, but better dead than coming forward toward us. The U.S. burial details could not get trucks in here to pick up the bodies as yet.
6th Armd. Div. Engineers [25th Armored Engineer Bn. -- ed.] had built a pontoon bridge across the Our river. We crossed into Germany and started a difficult climb up the gorge. I recall struggling up the hill and working up a heavy sweat with my load of gear. This area of Germany is called the Eifel and slightly further north the Schnee Eifel, a wooded mountainous region characterized by steep valleys and streams.
Upon reaching the summit we found our position and relieved another company of the 50th Armd Inf. Bn. Everyone moved cautiously through the woods the final few yards where we occupied foxholes facing an open field of about 300-400 yards looking directly into pillboxes - the Siegfried line.
These fortifications were constructed on oblique angles so each gun emplacement had an open field of fire of several hundred yards. Usually heavy machine guns peered through the openings with batteries of artillery behind them, all connected by trenches for movement of German infantry troops.
I was assigned a foxhole on the front edge of the woods with an older soldier - probably about 30 years old that I didn't know very well. I felt I was lucky to have someone with experience in combat. Each foxhole was scattered randomly through the area about forty feet apart. They were dug deep enough so only your head and shoulders appeared above ground level when firing your weapon in case of attack.
Our Battalion assignment called for active probing defense. This was not Patton's idea of the proper use of an armored division. We didn't have any heavy weapons support alongside us. There was no way to get tanks, half-tracks, or tank destroyers up these steep wooded slopes. The first afternoon we stayed in our foxhole - one soldier always looking toward the pillbox. We were told not to fire any weapons unless attacked, for fear of revealing our strength or lack thereof and inviting an artillery barrage. A barrage in a wooded area was especially dangerous because shells burst in the tree branches raining shrapnel down into the foxholes.
An Artillery forward observer officer and his assistant communication aide crept up to our foxhole in the late afternoon in an attempt to knock out this pillbox with artillery fire. He laid on top of the ground with a telephone in one hand and binoculars in the other calling back to division artillery. It was interesting for us to watch this procedure.
He called back to Battery B 777th AAA Battalion of 105 mm howitzers giving them the map coordinates of the pillbox location asking for a round -- long. We could hear the salvo come in whistling over our heads and watch the explosion beyond the target. His next command called for a round short. The pillbox was now bracketed and he telephoned, "fire for effect". One round was a direct hit on the upper part of the pillbox leaving only a black smudge. The only way to force the Germans out was to attack from the rear.
During the first night on the line, we took 2 hour shifts of peering into the darkness and straining to hear any unusual noise which would indicate enemy infiltration. One of us would try to catch a nap in the back of the foxhole which we covered with a pup tent shelter-half. In the middle of the night I was startled awake with a shout from my foxhole buddy, "Here they come kid , let 'em have it." We started firing our M-ls into the darkness ahead of the foxhole and I expected to see a German charging toward us at any moment. Soon our whole front erupted with small arms fire. We never knew whether or not there was a German patrol out there.
Our 6th Armd. Div. occupied a sector 20,000 yards long or approximately 11 1/2 miles with two battalions of armored infantry on the line and one battalion in reserve. Each battalion had about 1,000 men, so you can see that only small groups of soldiers could occupy this extensive distance; plenty of chance for infiltration of enemy units.
The second day, our squad was sent on a daylight patrol south toward Dasburg in an attempt to discover enemy troop locations. Cautiously moving through a wooded area, we were suddenly receiving an intense mortar barrage. We jumped into shell holes for protection as mortar shells detonated on contact with the ground spraying deadly shrapnel up and out at a 45 degree angle.
One soldier in our squad jumped in the shell hole with me and was scared worse than I was. We could hear the thump, thump of the mortars being fired and you counted to ten slowly before they reached you traveling in a high arc trajectory. He said," I'm going to run for it, the next one is going to come right in this hole with us!" My reply was that if it did you'd never know it. You would surely die to try to run through it. I remember reciting the 23rd Psalm ... when Dean Adams, our hillbilly squad member, shouted to look directly ahead at the edge of the woods. We spotted five German soldiers who were directing the mortar fire onto us. All of us began firing and they turned to run over the top of the hill with us charging after them. In a barrage the safest place to go is toward the line of fire to run underneath the arc of incoming salvos. As we reached the tree line the Germans were running across an open field hoping to escape. We knew if they got back to the Siegfried line we'd be in for more shelling. None made it back, it was like shooting rabbits in an open field. In spite of our fright of the fire fight, it gave us a terrible feeling and a pause for silence.
This war was a constant series of small similar actions that were never called battles -- just a line or two in the division records as a quiet day -- firefighters.
Hi Ho said to us, "I believe there is a small town in the valley ahead of us about 2 KM", as he was squinting at the map through his rather thick eyeglasses. "We have orders from Div. Hdqrtrs. to keep moving forward tonight if at all possible. I want you soldiers to move out through our outposts, travel below the ridge line of hills and then drop down into this town. I want you to place three riflemen in a building on one side of the street and three others in a house on the opposite side and send one riflemen back as a runner to our lines. As soon as he arrives back, we will move the whole Division forward."
John Gettle, our buck Sergeant squad leader said, "Capt., are you sure there is a town there unoccupied?" The reply was that intelligence had determined the Germans had retreated beyond or east of the Nims river. We were to move out as soon as possible.
We went back to our billet and prepared for the patrol. Dog tags were muffled. Helmets removed in favor of knit stocking caps. Faces blackened. No canteens or extra weight in gear. M-1 rifles with one cartridge belt of ammo. Knives or bayonets strapped to our boots and each of us carried two hand grenades. We were given the password to go through our outposts. Anything that would click or rattle was left behind.
In 15 minutes we were on our way on a cold partially cloudy moonlit night. We passed through our outpost with a friendly "Good luck, Joes" in a whisper. During the first 100 yards you are on hyper-alert, you are afraid the enemy might hear your heartbeat. We didn't know where the Gerries were and they didn't know we were wandering into their territory.
We walked in deadly silence spread out about ten yards between each man. Each time the moon came out we dropped to the ground not daring to breathe. Hand signals only -- no talking. After moving just below the ridge line to prevent being silhouetted against the skyline, we smelled the Germans. They had a peculiar stinking odor from the cheap ersatz tobacco they smoked and the coffee they drank. They were in a forward outpost, a small farm building, most likely as artillery observers. We by-passed them in silence.
The squad moved further and further along the ridge without any evidence of a village down in the valley to our right or south. At this point , I was convinced Capt. Silver had not passed map reading in officers training. I moved up to Johnny and whispered that if we didn't find that town soon, we would be caught behind the German lines in daylight and at best spend the rest of the war in Stalag # ? or at worst ?
We never found a village. And now for the slow tedious careful move back to our lines. Along the ridge line we decided to raid the German outpost, very cautiously approaching in dead silence. This time we could hear not a sound and the odor, while still there, was not as strong. We opened the door and the post had been vacated during the time we passed it on the way out. The telephone wires were still in place, so our conclusion that it was an artillery observation post was verified.
We approached the American lines just at the very first light of daybreak. Our next worry was that we hoped they would remember there was a friendly patrol out in front and not fire on us before we could give the password. We reported back to "Hi Ho" that there was no village where he indicated on the map and told him about the German outpost.
... According to Division records the attack to the east continued. Matter of fact, CT 50 was stopped dead in its tracks by heavy fire. We were unable to move until late morning. How would seven soldiers have been able to take a town at night when the next day, CT 50 with 1000 men and two platoons of tanks and tank destroyers were stopped pending Corps artillery assistance ?
What was it like attacking in an armored column? Most often a combat command (like CCB) and a combat team underneath (like CT 50) would move on country roads that were somewhat parallel to reach a certain objective. In this case it was the Rhine river just north of Worms.
The very first vehicle on the road was usually an armored car with a 37 mm cannon and/or a 50 calibre machine gun mounted in the turret manned by the 86th Recon Team [86th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron, (Mechanized) -- ed.] . Next in line was a Sherman tank with a 76 mm cannon ( we were refitted with new tanks having larger guns during our stay in France ) and crew of four or five tankers. The third vehicle would be a half-track with a squad of armored infantry, meaning 12 soldiers at full complement, which we rarely had because of casualties. This was called the point of attack and obviously the most dangerous position in the whole armored column.
Every turn in the road, every building, every clump of trees, each ditch and any other hiding place was a spot for ambush. The most feared was a German Tiger tank with its powerful 88 mm weapon and machine guns. Next most dangerous were members of the German Panzer Corps that might be hiding along the roadside with machine guns and Panzerfausts to stop the armored vehicles dead in their tracks and set them on fire. Rear guard action.
One day in this offensive in the mountainous area northeast of Zwiebrucken, our Company B of the 50th Armd Inf Bn was assigned to the point. Our half-track and rifle squad of ten was chosen for the point, the third vehicle. We were slowly grinding our way up a narrow heavily forested road on a switch back curve. The Recon car stopped dead in its track, screeched into reverse backing up as fast as possible. The Recon car, moving slowly around a curve near the very summit, had carefully poked its nose ahead, the crew stared through the trees looking at the shadow of a German tank at the top loop of the road. The German tank fired but missed, not being able to depress the gun low enough downhill to catch the Recon car backing up.
A frantic call to us for help. Up over the sides of the half-track, we bailed out in an instant knowing the enemy was very, very close. We didn't want to get blasted in our halftrack by a Tiger tank -- nobody would survive. Our squad quickly formed a skirmish line to advance up through the woods from the road to the top of the next hairpin turn which was the summit. We knew Germans were in this woods -- they never left a tank unprotected by infantry.
As we moved quickly up and forward we carried our rifles on our hips with the safeties off ready to fire our semiautomatic weapons, one round each time we pulled the trigger. On our right flank where Dean Adams, our Tennessee hillbilly buddy, was moving, gun fire erupted. Directly to our front, perhaps no more than twenty feet away several Germans popped up out of the ground where they had been hiding in shallow foxholes. We blasted away from the ready position not taking time to aim from the shoulder. We beat them to the draw. All slumped back into the ground, one directly in front of me with half of his skull gone and his brain exposed. Once again Dean had saved us from destruction when he spotted the German machine gun crew of three on our right flank, firing upon them thereby alerting us and killing them before they could infilade our flank.
It was a very frightening skirmish for us. All over in a matter of a few seconds -- nothing in the history books -- probably militarily described as "minor delaying action by the enemy was encountered".
Our M-1 Garand semi-automatic rifles were far superior to the bolt action German Mausers in close action since we could fire many times faster. In our infantry training we were taught how to fire quickly at pop-up enemy targets and our reflex actions no doubt saved us. Lucky for us, this group of enemy soldiers was not equipped with effective machine pistols which we called "Burp Guns" because of their rapid fire.
In the meantime, our lead tank spotted the German tank and quickly fired off two or three rounds knocking it out. As we reached the top of the hill we could see the end of a German column fleeing in the valley below perhaps two hundred yards away. We had run into a rear guard delaying action. There was a truck at the end of the column that was stalled with German soldiers running for cover toward the front of the column so we fired our rifles on them from the prone position of our vantage point and killed or wounded several of them as the main column advanced beyond our range.
I recall lying quietly on the ground behind the protection of a tree trunk, my face flushed red with the terrible excitement of the moment, wondering how this world could be in such an awful state -- where we had to kill in order to survive. Was this Hell on Earth ? I remember praying, trying to stumble through the 23rd Psalm, "Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil. For Thou art with me. Thy Rod and Staff comforteth me... "
Our L-5 spotter plane radioed the location of the German column to headquarters and in a few minutes, attack fighters, P-47's came in to wreck havoc on the Germans retreating toward the Rhine.
We were temporarily stalled at the small town of Malsfeld because of a blown bridge across the Fulda river as CCB was heading east towards Muhlhausen and Weimar. Our rifle squad had pushed up against the river, advancing through the town using the brick and stone buildings for cover from sporadic small arms fire and German 88 artillery shelling.
The Germans had a very excellent weapon in the "88's" which could be used either as anti-aircraft weapons or field artillery. They were equipped with telescopic cross hair sights and could easily zero in on targets a long distance away -- much better than with a rifle. We always said they could pick off a rabbit running in an open field. Typical of these small German towns along a river, there were buildings on both sides. We occupied the west bank and German soldiers were on the eastern side.
The buildings in our area were three story brick and stone with windows looking across the river. The cobble stone streets allowed us to call for and bring a tank up to a corner of the street sheltering it from direct fire by these buildings. The tank crew could poke the nose of the tank around the corner, fire off a round or two and quickly duck back behind the shelter of the building. We were trying to locate the German artillery to silence them.
My buddy, John Axelson -- older than myself as he was nineteen -- was the squad BAR (Browning Automatic Rifle ) man and I was the assistant. Neither of us liked the job since it was a dangerous weapon to fire. The magazine held 20 shells, some of which were tracer bullets, which showed the path of the bullets to the target as it was fired. It also showed the path back to the firing source for the enemy and invariably brought return fire. John and I had an understanding -- never fire unless you had a certain target and after firing quickly move to a new location.
We set up the BAR on its small tripod in an open door of a brick and stone stable building looking across the river, but hidden back in the shadows and partially protected by a short stone wall. There were some beautiful large grey horses in box stalls on the opposite end of the barn, somewhat nervous from the commotion and gunfire nearby.
Our squad leader sent three or four of us into the top floor of the building to see if we could locate German activity or spot the location of their artillery. From our vantage point in this large building, looking across the river we could see German soldiers moving and fired at them.
From third floor, we then moved quickly to the second floor and a different
end of the building because we knew the Germans would have some incoming
mail for us, parking an 88 shell in the window we just vacated. In
the meantime, our tank fired off a couple of rounds and I could hear John
firing the BAR. I thought I'd better get back down to help John move the BAR, so I told my Sergeant what I was going to do and he gave me the OK. Just as I got down to the ground floor of the stable, I paused for a second to look in on the horses, and an 88 shell came whistling in the door where John was located. I dove down on the stone floor behind the horses. I started to run towards John and Dean Adams, who was halfway down the middle of the stables stopped me. He said, "Hud, don't look. It won't do any good. He's gone." I was devastated.
I never retrieved the BAR and from that time to the end of the war on May 8th, our rifle squad did not have a BAR nor did we request a replacement from ordnance.
Later Easter morning the fire fight quieted down. The sun came out and it was a beautiful Spring day -- only I couldn't see the beauty of it. Our Chaplain found a small country church nearby and held a brief service for us. I remember how white and clean the inside of this little church was and how the sun's rays shone through the windows. I thought we ( John and I ) were invincible. Surely he ascended into Heaven with the Lord on that Easter Sunday in 1945.
Combat Teams don't have time to bury their dead. That grizzly task is left to Burial Details of the Quartermaster Corps. They identify the bodies checking for dog tags and start the procedure to notify the next of kin. Those soldiers who are blown apart so that there is nothing left to identify are called MIA (missing in action).
The 50th Armored Infantry Battalion history records the action as, "The last day of the month provided the stiffest opposition encountered by Task Force Ward since its Prum River campaign. B Company moved into Wichte in midmorning, dismounted and entered Neumorschen with the mission of securing a bridgehead across the Fulde River, to permit the continued advance of the Combat Command to the East."
CCB was instructed to by-pass Zeitz, close by and circle to the north. CCA was to swing south on a bypass. Our Reserve Command, reinforced, was committed to a frontal attack to secure a bridge across the Weisse-Elster in the city of Zeitz.
Attempts to envelope the Zeitz defenses by CCB resulted in the Command's swinging well to the north and entering the First Army zone. There was no confusion on this day since the First Army had not advanced that far but later the 9th Armd Div closed in on CCB and it was temporarily attached to it.
The Div cleared not only some 25 miles of First Army zone in the vicinity of Muhlhausen but also made a bridgehead north of Zeitz for the 9th Armd Div which materially assisted its advance.
April 14th -- Early in the morning Reserve Command was in the outer zone of the city's defenses. Elements of it were attempting to seize the northern bridge in town when it was blown before them. Simultaneously the other two bridges in town were destroyed. A bridgehead was later established but enemy direct fire weapons prevented construction of a bridge.
"The small party in the city was reinforced and after 24 hours of continuous street fighting, Zeitz was cleared and the anti-aircraft installations were silenced. CT 50 pushed southeast through Zeitz to destroy many enemy anti-aircraft batteries."
The above paragraph is the official military description of the battle. It sounds pretty easy.
In driving through Zeitz our Company B, 50th Armd Inf ran into a German military training facility which was fully defended. The large three story brick buildings were surrounded by some open space, which must have been their drill fields. We were hunkered down behind a small embankment at the edge of a woods staring into the buildings. A warning was sent to the German Commandant to surrender or face complete destruction. He elected to fight it out.
As was often the case with an armored column we had close tactical air support. Our CT 50 Commander called for fighter bombers to attack the building in which the German Commandant was located. We launched smoke grenades to mark the building and in a few minutes the Air Force was in action with P 47's. Heavy bombs were dropped right through the roof of the building to our left. The firing from that building was silenced. Directly to our front was another identical building and we were given orders to make a direct assault on it. This means charging straight ahead in twos and threes while the remaining soldiers lay down a withering covering fire to keep the enemy from firing weapons at the exposed charging infantry.
It was our time to go across the open drill field, the command given by our 2nd Lt. platoon leader. Two others and myself took off for the building. Firing all around us. We ran as fast as we could, looking to reach the shelter of the brick walls of the building quickly. We stopped at a concrete basement supply loading ramp, when we heard a bazooka go off around the corner. It was a rifle squad on the back side of the building that made the mistake of gathering in a small group. A Jerry fired down on them from the roof killing and wounding them all.
Peter Boetchner, from Milwaukee, the third soldier with us went down
in a heap with a groan. Bullets were hitting the concrete near us.
I took a quick glance at Peter and he was shot through the groin from the
front and looked green and dead. I yelled for the Medics and told
the other young
soldier that was with me (I don't even remember his name -- he was a new replacement) that we've got to run away from here or get into the building quickly. We were the only soldiers at the building. In a split second we figured our chances were better inside. We opened the steel door, tossed two hand grenades into the hallway and went into the building firing our M-l's shouting, "Hande hoch", "Kammerad". We ducked behind two steel drums at the doorway entrance and it was pitch black. We were scared to death thinking how did we get into this mess. A few murmurs were heard and all of a sudden, "nicht schiessen" -- don't shoot. The Germans started filing out in a hurry. At first a few. Then more -- then more -- then more -- in all 120 Germans. As they got outside the building, they ran as fast as they could for our line at the edge of the parade field. They were afraid the SS officers still around might shoot them for surrendering.
It wasn't long before our whole platoon was in the building and our next job was to search for Germans inside. We had barely time to collect our courage, when I was walking through the darkened basement with other G.I.s shouting for anyone else to surrender. I went around a corner glancing into a darkened room and saw a German soldier with his helmet on squatting in a corner. In a millisecond, I thought I was dead waiting for the bullet to hit me. Why I hesitated firing my weapon, I'll never know. This German soldier was scared out of his wits, his pants down, excreting in the corner. I yelled for him to take his helmet off and run for it pointing down the hallway.
These actions took only minutes and seconds -- terribly dangerous --
but nothing unusual -- these incidents happened to all of the attacking
Armored Infantry Companies in the battle of Germany. Later in April,
I was happy to learned that Peter, while severely wounded, survived this
Table of Contents
Roy Denman: My Army Service in WW II
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