Friday, August 19, 2011

Into Hell & History


German Paratroopers

Source: “Saga of the All American: History of the 82nd Airborne Division in World War II”, Dawson, F., 1946 p. 197

With what is known about the battle and all of the discoveries made from interviews with Bill’s siblings as well as letters he and his brother Henry wrote home during the war, it is possible to reconstruct his personal battle with the Hermann Goring Panzer Division at Biazza Ridge. What follows is my attempt to do just that. Hopefully, this fact based reconstruction will serve to honor the unbelievably horrendous sacrifices made by the 505 veterans of that bloody battle .

Bill probably arrived at Biazza Ridge in the morning of July 11, and definitely before or during one of the Tiger tank attacks on 3rd Battalion’s positions on the western slope of the ridge. Perhaps he was there from the beginning and was one of the Regimental Headquarters Company (RHQ) serial troopers who stormed the ridge with Company G routing the Germans from their positions and driving them down the western slope. Maybe he arrived while Company H counter attacked with bayonets and helped drive the Germans from the ridge the second time. He might have come later perhaps in one of the smaller groups that arrived during the day. It’s improbable that he came as one of the 50 troopers that arrived with Lt. Swingler of Service Company, because that isn’t consistent with the story Bill told his brother Henry. In that story Bill was clearly fighting Tiger tanks by firing his weapon at their glass viewfinders. He would have needed enough light to do that. Not only had Lt. Swingler arrived after the tanks had been driven off by the naval bombardment, but the final attack that his men had fought in occurred at sunset which was 8:30pm on July 11, 1943. Moreover, Bill recalled being present to see the howitzers firing almost vertically at the Tigers and that happened before Lt. Swingler arrived.

When he got there he probably met with his close friend – his buddy, who’s a member of G, H, RHQ Company, or Service Company. Bill and this man are very good friends and they’re glad to see one another. They’re both relieved to have made it through the jump and subsequent journey to the ridge, but there’s no time to exchange much of anything else. An officer sends them directly to the front line, telling them to take up a position on a gap in the line. They see that German infantry and tanks are advancing on the 505’s position on the ridge. It’s during one of the German counter attacks. Someone shouts out information about the Tigers, or perhaps they recognize from their training that these tanks are heavy Mark VI Tiger tanks mounted with 88mm cannons. They can shoot the infantry, but there is nothing that their 30 caliber M1 Garand rifles can do against the heavily armored Tiger’s. They run or crawl part way down the western slope of the ridge to their position in the line of advancing tanks and infantry. Bullets zip by and mortar shells explode around them killing other troopers. Like many other men, they may not have slept since the night of July 8. Thankfully, adrenaline begins to course through them reinforcing their skills learned from their intense training as paratroopers.

Laying low in a depression or a slit trench previously dug into the shallow shale of the ridge, they survey their position. They see the Tigers advancing in front of the infantry. They shoot at the enemy soldiers and provide covering fire for the bazooka teams who risk their lives at close range to fire bazookas at the tanks. Part of the developing strategy is to aim their M1 rifles at the view finders on the Tigers in an attempt to hit or at least harass the enemy inside the tanks. Perhaps this will distract the tank crews and buy the bazooka teams time to fire their weapons.



Tiger Mark VI Captured in Tunis 1943.

Source: Wikipedia Commons 

Note the view finding slit on the hull (just right of tanks center front) underneath the 88mm cannon. This is the slit the 505 troopers were firing into with rifles

To their dismay, Bill and his buddy realize that the bazookas cannot penetrate the heavy over 4 inch thick iron steel armor of the Mark VI Tigers. Far worse, to their horror, they see the tanks firing their 88mm cannons at individual troopers. The men are blown into pieces or disappear in the cloud of the exploding 88mm shells. They are now bearing firsthand witness to the Hermann Goring Division’s brutality. They see tanks getting very close to other men who try and disable the Tigers by placing gammon grenades in their tracks. This isn’t successful and more often it ends in the death of yet another trooper. As the morning wears on more troopers arrive taking the place of those who died and to expand the 505’s postion. During the attacks, Tigers repeatedly run low on ammunition and need to pull back and reload. When they do, Bill’s mind feels some respite, but his stomach doesn’t. It ambushes him with a sharp burning sensation, clutching with the realization that the attacks will continue relentlessly, until he and his fellow paratroopers are all destroyed.

It’s during one of these attacks, that personal tragedy strikes. Bill and his friend are in a forward position firing their rifles to shoot into the viewfinder on a Tiger that’s close by. They are supporting a trooper who’s placing a gammon grenade in the tank’s track. Unexpectedly, the tank crew spots them in their slit trench. It swings it huge cannon in their direction. Quickly they decide to split up, diving and running out of the way. Bill is able to run a short distance, and lands into another trench, this one deeper, more protected than the one he previously occupied. Turning over to take stock of his situation, he sees his friend scouring around, desperately trying to find cover. He’s unable to find anything and while he’s looking, the Tiger takes aim. Bill tries to get his attention, waving for him to come his way, but in the roar of the battle, and the confusion of his situation his buddy doesn’t hear. Helpless, in despair, Bill watches as the awful cannon fires. He hopes with all his heart that it will miss. But it doesn’t. The 88mm shell explodes with a direct hit on his friend. He disappears becoming a pink cloud, almost indistinguishable from the huge ball of smoke and pieces of shale thrown up by the explosion. Bill is devastated. His stomach retches dry at the sight. Later, he will have time slip into a long dark depression, but for now all of his senses are keyed on his survival.

Hunched down in is trench, Bill chances a glance at the Tiger and can’t believe what his eyes see. The tank has changed course and is now moving toward him. Its turret has swung around in his direction. He quickly dips his head down desperately hoping he wasn’t spotted. With luck he thinks it will pass him by. But it doesn’t go away. Instead he can hear it moving up and down, scouring the terrain, as if it’s looking for him. A stark realization dawns on Bill. The Tiger is hunting him. As the seconds tick by it is getting closer. Now it is very close. Close enough that he can hear voices of the men inside. Suddenly it stops. Above the grumbling engine a weird electrical motorized whining noise startles him. The sound is emanating from the machine’s turret as it robotically jerks left and right making adjustments in its aim. Bill scurries 20 feet or so down the trench away from the sounds. The trench opens up into a deeper natural ditch, offering better cover. This new position in the ditch affords Bill a safer view of the tank. From here he can see it stopped almost on top of his previous position. He thinks about making a run for it, but decides against it. The terrain is too open for that. He stays put instead.

After a few seconds the lid of the turret clangs open. A German tank crewman’s head and torso pops out. The German combs the area around Bill, looking for him among the terrain, relaying the information through his headset to the others inside. Unexpectedly an odd calm swiftly descends over Bill. With his weapon he takes careful aim at the German’s head and cocks the trigger. Retribution for his friend is now at hand. Should he fire? He hesitates. He’s an exceptional shot. Missing isn’t the issue. He had seen the two MG 34s mounted on the Tiger’s turret and hull make meal out of other men earlier that day. He is too close. To fire now would mean certain death. Reluctantly he quells his fury and lowers the gun. Vengeance will have to wait another day. Abruptly, the German lowers himself back down and the lid slams shut. The tank turns and heads back on its way up the ridge.

Bill watches for a few minutes as the Tiger crawls relentlessly on, blowing away other troopers with its hellish 88mm cannon, grinding them up with its dreadful MG 34 792mm caliber machine guns. Appalled, enraged, he soon turns away. A fresh charge of adrenaline surges through him, shocking his body back into the reality of the battle. He returns to the fight.

Soon after, the putrid Tiger begins to hunger for more fuel and ammunition. It’s a hideous abomination. The brainchild of some engineering genius detached from the sorrow it would pour out onto the world. Cutting a vivid image from some ghastly nightmare, gurgling and growling it lurches back to a German support crew to slurp up a fresh meal of gasoline, bullets, and more of those gruesome 88mm shells. Once sated, it guns its thunderous engine to signal its rage at those brave, stubborn, but stupid little men hopelessly defending the ridge and its delight in anticipation of the carnage it will soon inflict upon them.

Bill somehow finds the strength to fight on, teaming up with other troopers. He fights through the day. Later in the afternoon he hears of Gavin’s command that the 505 will stay and fight, that there will be no retreat. If the Tigers overrun their position, they will hold their ground and attack the German infantry. At hearing the order from his beloved colonel, Bill’s resolve is now galvanized. He will stay and fight. He will avenge his friend. If he dies, then so be it.

In the afternoon, while firing at German infantry from his foxhole Bill watches a Tiger that has broken through the 505ths thin line. He sees troopers die in rapid succession as the immortal tank sprays its bullets at the men with its heavy machine guns. He witnesses the howitzer shoot multiple rounds at the monster and feels retribution as it retreats in the clouds of dust. His voice is among those who cheer at this small victory.

The day is now growing old. Glancing at the sky Bill can see that the scorching Sicilian sun is getting lower, but it won’t set until 8:30pm. Over the past hour the German attacks have become more determined. Like his fellow men, Bill’s ammunition is running low. Now he must make every bullet count. There are holes appearing in the 505’s defensive line making it easier for the Germans to take more and more ground from the paratroopers. Bill’s been fighting all day. He’s drained. He’s feels spent. He is forced to retreat to a position further up the ridge. The Germans now make a very powerful push and are within 50 yards of Gavin’s command post, only a few yards away from Bill’s new fox hole. Just when he thinks his luck has run out he hears the howl of artillery fire followed by earsplitting explosions. The artillery is gratefully coming down on the German positions. He cheers, but can’t hear the sound of his own voice. The navy’s 155mm artillery shells decimate the Germans and in the face of this justice, the menacing Tigers are at last forced to retreat from the ridge. Bill can see them regrouping about a mile away.

It’s impossible for us to comprehend how Bill has gotten this far, let alone understand where he got his strength to participate in Gavin’s final counter attack at 8:30pm. Gavin rallies every man present for this final charge. They all line up on the ridge awaiting the order. Where Bill’s standing, a thick cloud of dust and smoke from the navy shelling has settled with no wind to blow it away. Bill’s local visibility is at best 30 yards. When the command is given, the paratroopers charge screaming and yelling down the western side of Biazza Ridge. Among them, Bill’s gaunt silhouette can be seen momentarily before it vanishes into the haze. Halfway down the slope he reappears barreling down the hill with the other paratroopers. Running out on to the plain they soon encounter machine gun fire, explosions from mortars, and 88mm shells from the Tigers. Bill sees that some men have been unlucky enough to run into Tigers. Through sheer numbers they overwhelm the tanks setting C-4 explosives in their tracks and turrets, disabling them. He pursues the retreating German infantry, who are now running for their lives just ahead of him. He sees a group of three who appear to want to stay and fight. They fire at him with their bolt action Karak 98b rifles. Fuming with vengeance, Bill dispatches them in fluid motions with his M1 Garand. As the Germans flee into the distance Bill hears the call to cease the assault and regroup at the bottom of the ridge. The Germans for now at least have been driven away. Bill sees them off in the distance milling about in confusion.

Walking back up the ridge Bill and a few other men are ordered to form a team to supervise German POWs as they collect the bodies of fallen paratroopers for temporary burial. It’s thankless grisly work and he’s glad to leave when they’ve finished. As he turns around to go he is surprised to see Col. Gavin nearby, looking at the graves. Bill watches him briefly. Gavin, with tears in his eyes, seems to be looking through rather than at markers. He quietly walks away leaving him to grieve in piece.

Bill virtually collapses upon reaching an empty foxhole. For the first time finally there’s a moment to rest. Nothing occupies his mind except a blank dull sense of loss, the feeling of an empty victory, punctuated by flashes of horror. He tries sleeping, but that proves difficult. No one knows for sure if the Germans would regroup and attack again during the night. When he does drop off, the nightmares are unspeakable.

The day of July 11, 1943 never really ended for those troopers who fought at Biazza Ridge. They were doomed to relive it again and again, every day, for the rest of their lives. They would go through all the usual symptoms of trauma victims after the initial shock wore off. They felt anger at the Germans and this fueled a desire to kill more of them.

For Bill it lead directly to his decision to volunteer for the Salerno jump. He would feel guilt for not doing something to save his friend and suffer remorse for not being the one who died. Later, a profound sadness would pervade his mind and stay with him as a constant companion. As is often reported for people in this situation, Bill never befriended another man while he was in the Army. Bill’s sister, Doris said that he purposely never made a close friend in the service after seeing his friend die. She said her father understood why. He had fought in WWI and he had experienced his own close friends perish in war.

Below is a picture of Bill with his buddy before they left for Casablanca.


Bill with his Buddy

The next post will document the progress in discovering the name of the man in this picture. It’s quite probable that he is the same friend who died at Biazza Ridge.

© Copyright Jeffrey Clark 2011 All Rights Reserved.