Michael Eckenfels, 27 January 2022
After the wind whipped at their parachutes, an eerie silence descended across the sky. The droning roar of the C47’s that just dropped them ripped the night wide open, making it obvious to anyone who wasn’t completely deaf that something was up. The only thing they could hope for was that the Germans were used to the Allied flybys and would not come out of their secured areas to investigate.
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The fog drenched the ground like a wet sponge, thick and inviting. When we landed, it was a near perfect deployment – if a near perfect deployment means being scattered all over the place. One group landed west of the river, one east, and the largest component landed in the middle. At least there were no bent or broken bodies – any landing you can walk away from, and all that.. The men unslung their harnesses, locked and loaded their weapons, and conducted other business as usual as if they were deployed in the English hinterland instead of in the backyard of the enemy.
They were south of their objectives, nearest to the two westernmost bridges spanning the Douve River. Blowing them would block any Axis reinforcements to the area; the river was too deep and fast flowing to be easily forded. The third bridge over that spanned the Merderet to the east was the one the higher-ups wanted captured. Why all of them shouldn’t be captured, who knows; seems kind of funny to not grab the other two bridges, but they were not prone to question orders. They may grumble and louse about it, but in the end the matter of business was to do what needed to be done. It may save countless lives when the landings on the beach begin the next morning.
German searchlights pierced the gloom with icepick-thin shafts of light, searching the heavens in the aftermath of the transports’ departure. The Germans were not as complacent as we’d hoped, and we had to anticipate trouble. At least their attention seemed riveted to the heavens and not to the ground.
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The men were split up into several combat groups. West of the Douve were one SMG squad, one Rifle squad, one Engineer, and one Commander. They were attached as one unit and were ordered to defend to the north while the remaining men organized themselves.
The men immediately south of the village made up the largest portion of the strike – one Commander and three Rifle Squads were put into one group, while three Mortar squads, one Rifle squad, and one SMG squad were grouped into another. The first would act as a screen for the mortars, which, if the Engineers failed, would be their only means of knocking down the spans to the west.
East of the Merderet was two Rifle squads, one Mortar squad, and one SMG squad. They were grouped into one unit, moved forward a little, and, when the easternmost bridge was in sight (but not the defenses near it), they were ordered to Defend in the direction of the bridge.
The groups to the west started advancing northwards, moving at a Walk speed to maximize weapon accuracy and spotting ability; running would lessen it considerably and when expecting trouble, it’s a good choice. The group to the west of the main bridge (1 SMG, 1 Rifle, 1 Mortar, 1 Commander) instantly hit trouble from the pillbox guarding the western approaches. As they concentrated fire there, a counterattack formed from the north and hit their flank. After some US reinforcements trickled over the bridge to help, the Germans were wiped out – but the precious Engineer was lost. The Commander was down as well, giving his subordinates a severe morale hit, but they continued to fight when the reinforcements appeared. Plan B, using Mortars, became our top priority. The survivors clamored to the east side of the bridge. Meanwhile, the main central group was fighting off a steady stream of counterattacks from the direction of the village. The men were ordered to Defend in that direction, and made short work of most anything coming down from there.
With the Engineer dead, they used their mortar tubes to wreck the span quickly. As the last German counterattack fizzled out, so too did the last mortar round pierce the large span, and it crashed with a thunderclap of noise into the deep river below.
The second bridge would be a tougher nut to crack. It was a railroad span, sitting high above the river and accessible only by a steep embankment leading to the railroad ties. It proved to be too steep for the men, however. Skirting the village to the north, they searched the inky blackness for a shallower angle to the railroad embankment from which they could get to the bridge. The village immediately to the south remained quiet, indicating most of the troops their had spent themselves against the defense of the southernmost bridge. Even though it was quiet, the men didn’t tempt fate by going through it. Instead, they skirted the Douve to the north along its east bank. However, after having blown the bridge to the south, they wondered if they were not entering a hornet’s nest.
The group scouting out an access route to the top of the railroad embankment were halted and ordered to Defend the position while the Mortar group started laying a barrage on the span.
It took a lot longer to fall, but when it finally did it sent jagged pieces of steel and wood into the air in a shower of destruction. The elimination of the two bridges was complete, and therefore so was one of the mission goals. We could now move on to capturing the other bridge to the east of the village.
Soon a nosy German appeared to the north of the men defending the end of the embankment, but he quickly scurried away when the main body brought him under fire. He brought friends with him soon after – about two rifle squads – and they paid for their curiosity.
Having re-formed at the north end of the village, the men studied the map and discovered that the best approach was to move due east to the river Merderet, then south to the bridge. The other group left on the east bank of that river, south of the bridge, showed that we could skirt the village to the east and move south along the bank of the other river without having to get caught in the village itself. The plan was to catch the Germans in a vice between the two forces, causing them to divide their fire and consequently making the capture that much easier.
That group to the south of the bridge, however, ran into problems. Thanks to a sharp-eyed German, the small force was discovered and was immediately attacked. The US soldiers defended themselves well, but the two Rifle squads and Mortar squad were wiped out. The SMG squad was the only unit remaining. We decided to go ahead with the plan; the SMG squad may be able to draw some pressure off of the main body’s attack on the defenses to the west of the bridge.
The main group moved south along the river’s bank to the bridge. The Germans were caught completely unawares, but they recovered quickly. An SdKf armored car stood sentinel on the bridge, and the US main body was spotted immediately. The mortar fire saved the day, reducing the German armored car to a burned-out hulk, and the two German rifle squads and pillbox were neutralized – but the cost was heavy. The Germans had a Mortar battery of their own on the other side of the river, and it reduced the US units even further.
The SMG team moved up on the east side of the bridge shortly before the fireworks started to the west, but their presence didn’t deter the Germans. Instead, the SMG squad was put into a situation that was completely over their heads and, thanks to the pillbox guarding the east end of the bridge and a German rifle squad, they were wiped out.
There weren’t nearly as many US soldiers left from the initial attack. While the Germans suffered heavy casualties compared to theirs (63 infantry to 47), the victory was a near-run thing. Almost all US soldiers were wiped out; the key to their eventual success was the concentrated and prolific use of their Mortar squads. The Engineer shouldn’t have been placed in harm’s way so quickly in this mission, but it becomes obvious as to why it’s important to always have a backup plan ready to go. Once the Engineer was lost, the Mortar squads were heavily protected to ensure victory.
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