February 18, 2015

"War in the Siegfried Line" by Ernest Hemingway

War in the Siegfried Line
"Ernest Hemingway with Colonel Charles T. (Buck) Lanham September 18, 1944" (source)
From Collier's magazine, November 18, 1944, pp. 18, 70-71, 73. (See Hemingway's other World War II essays here.)


Perhaps it seemed that we easily broke into Germany's strong defenses, but here is the story of conflict in the Schnee Eifel range—and how the Wump gun did its part.

A lot of people will tell you how it was to be first into Germany and how it was to break the Siegfried Line and a lot of people will be wrong. So this will not be held up by the censor while all the claims are threshed out. We do not claim anything. No claims, see? You get it? No claims at all. Let them decide and then we will see who was in there first. I mean which outfit. Not which people.

The infantry cracked the Siegfried Line. They cracked it on a cold rainy morning when even the crows weren't flying, much less the Air Force. Two days before, on the last day before the weather broke for the bad, we had come to the end of the rat race. It had been a fine rat race from Paris up as far as Le Cateau, with bitter fighting at Landrecies that few saw and fewer still are left to remember. Then there had been the forcing of the passes of the Ardennes Forest in country like the illustrations for Grimm's Fairy Tales only a lot grimmer.

Then the rat race went on again through rolling, forested country. Sometimes we would be half an hour behind the retreating enemy's mechanized force. Sometimes we would get up to within five minutes of them. Sometimes we would overrun them and, from the point of the recon, you would hear the fifties hammering behind you and the 105-millimeter Wump guns going on the tank destroyers and the merging roar and rattle of enemy fire, and the word would come along: "Enemy tanks and half-tracks in the rear of the column. Pass the word along."

Then, suddenly the rat race was over, and we were on a high hill, out of the forest, and all the rolling hills and forests that you saw ahead of you were Germany. There was a heavy, familiar roar from the creek valley below as the bridge was blown, and beyond the black cloud of smoke and debris that rose, you saw two enemy half-tracks tearing up the white road that led into the German hills.

Our artillery was blasting yellow-white clouds of smoke and road dust ahead of them. You watched one half-track slither sideways across the road. The other stopped on the turn of the road after trying twice to move like a wounded animal. Another shell pounded up a fountain of dust and smoke alongside the crippled half-track and when the smoke cleared, you could see the bodies on the road. That was the end of the rat race, and we came down a trail in the woods and into the ford over the river and across the slab-stoned river bed and up the far bank into Germany.

We passed the unmanned old-fashioned pillboxes that many unfortunate people were to think constituted the Siegfried Line, and got up into good high ground that night. The next day we were past the second line of concrete fortified strong points that guarded road junctions and approaches to the main Westwall, and that same night we were up on the highest of the high ground before the Westwall ready to assault in the morning.

The weather had broken. It was cold and raining and blowing half a gale, and ahead of us was the dark forest wall of the Schnee Eifel range where the dragon lived, and behind us on the first hill behind was a German reviewing stand that had been built for high officers to occupy when they watched the maneuvers that proved that the Westwall never could be broken. We were hitting it on the point that the Germans had chosen to prove, in sham battles, that it was impregnable.

A Fighter's Report of the Assault

The rest of this story is told in the words of Captain Howard Blazzard of Arizona. It may give you a little idea of what happens in combat.

"That night we got L Company into that town to hold it. It was practically unoccupied. Six Jerries, and we shot them. (This was the town, or small village rather, from which the attack started in the morning up the hill and across the level field of fire over a cropped wheatfield, the wheat shocks stacked, to assault the main fortifications of the Westwall which were in the thick pine forest of the dark hill beyond.)

"The Colonel, of Washington, D. C., got the three battalion commanders together and the S-2 and the S-3 and planned the break-through for in the morning. Where this break was going to be made (you notice the phrasing 'Going to be made,' not 'Going to be attempted') we were supposed to have one company of tanks and one company of T.D.s (Tank Destroyers) but they only gave us one platoon of tanks (five). We were supposed to have twelve T.D.s and we had only nine. You remember how everything was then and how the gas was short and all.

"The way it was supposed to be now (There is a great difference in combat between the way it is supposed to be and the way it is—as great as the difference in how life is supposed to be and how it is): L Company, that had moved into town the night before, was going to be on the right flank, and they were going to make the holding attack with fire.

"K Company had started walking early, before six A.M., and they were going to ride the tanks and the T.D.s. While they were coming up we got the T.D.s up into town and finally by twelve-thirty we got one platoon of tanks. Five of them. All five of them.

"Now I Company was back so far they couldn't get up. You remember everything that was happening that day. (Plenty. Plenty was happening.) So the Colonel, he took a company away from the First Battalion and threw them in, so he'd have three companies to make the attack.

How the Attack Got Started

"That was around one o'clock. The Colonel and I went up this left fork that was sort of drawn off on the left, to watch the attack get started. It started fine. K Company started riding the tanks and the T.D.s, and then they moved up and got just below the crest and fanned out. Just as they should. Just as they hit that little crest, L Company on their right opened up with machine guns and 60-millimeter mortars and all that fire, to attract attention from K Company.

"The tanks and T.D.s got up the hill and the flak guns (German antiaircraft guns,which fire almost as rapidly as machine guns, being used for direct fire on the ground against the attacking troops) opened up first. The 88 which we knew was in there held its fire. When the ack-ack and the machine guns opened up, the men started to dismount from the tanks, just as they should, and they went on up and they went fine till they got out in the open on that big bare field and almost to the edge of the last field in front of the woods.

"About that time they really opened up with the 88s—the 88s and all that flak. One T.D. hit a mine over on the left by that little road, you remember, just before it goes into the woods, and the tanks began to run. Lost a T.D. and a tank and they all started backing up. You know how they are when they start backing up.

"They started coming back down across the field, dragging a few wounded and a few limping. You know how they look coming back. Then the tanks started coming back and the T.D.s coming back and the men coming back plenty. They couldn't stay in that bare field, and the ones who weren't hit started yelling for the medicos for those who were hit, and you know how that excites everybody.

"The Colonel and I were sitting by the house and we could see the fight and the way it started fine and good. We thought they'd got right through. But then this stuff starts. Then come four tankers tearing along on foot and yelling and hollering how everything was knocked out.

"Then I asked the Colonel—I'd been in the Third Battalion a long time—and I said, 'Sir, I can go out there and kick those in the tail and take that place.' And he said, 'You're S-2 in a staff function and you stay where you. are.' That chewed my tail out. That made me unhappy.

"We sat there another ten or fifteen minutes, and the wounded kept drifting along back, and we were just there and I thought we're going to lose this battle. Then the Colonel says, 'Let's get up there. This thing has got to move. Those chickenspits aren't going to break down this attack.'

"So we started up the hill and we passed little groups here and there—you know how they drift together—and you know how the Colonel looks, and he is carrying his forty-five and walking up that hill. There is a sort of little terrace at the top where the hill starts to come down; under the cover of that little terrace were all the tanks and the T.D.s, and K Company was lined up along in a sort of skirmish line and they were all just sort of dead, and the attack was gone.

"The Colonel came up the hill and out over this terrace where they were all lying and he said, 'Let's go get these Krauts. Let's kill these chickenspitters. Let's get up over this hill now and get this place taken.'

"He had his goddam forty-five and he shot three-four times at where the Kraut fire was coming from, and he said, 'Goddam, let's go get these Krauts! Come on! Nobody's going to stop here now!' They were plenty cold as hell but he kept talking to them and telling them, and pretty soon he got some of them, and in fifteen minutes he got most of them moving. Once he got them moving, the Colonel and I and Smith (Sergeant James C. Smith from Tullahoma, Tennessee), we went on ahead of them and the attack was going again and we headed into the woods. It was bad in the woods but they went in good now.

"When we got into the woods (The woods were close-planted fir trees, and the shell-bursts tore and smashed them, and the splinters from the tree bursts were like javelins in the half-light of the forest, and the men were shouting and calling now to take the curse off the darkness of the forest and shooting and killing Krauts and moving ahead now) it was pretty thick for the tanks, and so they went to the outside. They were shooting into the woods, but we had to stop them now because K Company had pushed through ahead of them way into the woods.

Ambush in the Woods

"The Colonel and I and Smith, we went on ahead and found a hole in the timber where we could get a T.D. in. Now the attack was going good on ahead and all of a sudden we saw a bunker right beside us, and they started shooting at us. We decided there were Krauts in it. (This bunker was completely hidden by fir trees planted over it and grass growing over it and was a subterranean fort on the Maginot Line style with automatic ventilation, concussion-proof doors, bunks fifteen feet underground for the men, special exit provisions so that it could be run over and then its occupants attack the enemy from the rear, and it held fifty SS troops whose mission was to let the attack pass and then come out and fire on it.)

"All there was left with us now was the Colonel, I and Smith and Roger, this French boy who had been with us ever since St. Poix. I never knew his last name but he was a wonderful Frenchman. Best boy in a fight you ever saw. These Krauts in the bunker started shooting at us. So we started walking over toward it and we decided we'd got to get them out.

"There was an embrasure over on our side, but we couldn't see that, the way it was all planted over. I had only one grenade because I wasn't expecting what we were going to do. We got over within about ten yards of the pillbox, coming in this side of it. We couldn't see the aperture at the bottom of it. It all looked like a wooded hillock.

"They're shooting sort of scattered all the while. The Colonel and Smith were at the right of it. Roger was going in right toward the aperture. You couldn't see the fire.

"I yelled at Roger to get down, and right then they shot him. I saw the goddam hole then and I threw the grenade to go in, but you know how those apertures are beveled, and it hit and bounced out. Smith grabbed the Frenchman by the heels and started to drag him clear because he was still alive. In that slit trench on the left, there was a Kraut and he stood up, and Smith shot him with his carbine. You can tell how fast this happened because just then the grenade went off, and we all ducked.

"Then we started to get a lot of fire from the field out in front of the woods—the field we'd crossed to get into the woods—and Smith said, 'Colonel, you better get down in that hole because here comes those Krauts.'

"They were firing from the wheat shocks in the field right there in front of the woods and in that little tongue of brush. The Krauts started shooting at us from out there, which should have been our rear.

"The Colonel dropped one Kraut with his forty-five. Smith shot two with his carbine; I was in back of the pillbox and I shot the one who was in back of us across the road about fifteen yards away. I had to shoot at him three times before he stopped and then I didn't kill him good because when the T.D. came up finally he was lying right across the middle of the road and, seeing the T.D. coming up, he sort of scrounged up and tried to get out of the way, and the T.D. went over him and flattened him out.

"The rest of the Krauts sort of took off across the field and we didn't have any real trouble with that lot. Just sort of long-range fire. We know we killed three and we wounded some more that took off.

"We didn't have any more hand grenades and the b——s in the bunker wouldn't come out when we yelled at them. So the Colonel and I were waiting for them to come out, and Smith went off to the left and found a T.D. and brought it up. That was the T.D. that ran over the Kraut I had to shoot three times with that little old German pistol.

"The Krauts still wouldn't come out when talked to, so we pulled that T.D. right up to the back of that steel door we had located by now, and that old Wump gun fired about six rounds and blasted that door in, and then you ought to have heard them want to come out. You ought to have heard them yell and moan and moan and scream and yell 'Kamerad!'

"The T.D. had that old Wump gun pointed right in the door, and they started to come out, and you never saw such a mess. Every one of them was wounded in five or six different places, from pieces of concrete and steel. About eighteen good ones came out, and all the time inside there was the most piteous moaning and screaming, and there was one fellow with both his legs cut off by the steel door. I went down to see how everything was and got a suitcase with a couple of quarts of whisky in it and a couple of boxes of cigars and a pistol for the Colonel.

"One of the prisoners was in pretty good shape, not really good shape but he could travel. He was a noncom. The rest of them were lying down outside, all moaning, wounded and shot up.

"This noncom showed us where the next bunker was. By then, we knew what they looked like, and you could spot them by any sort of rise of ground. So we took the T.D. and went down the road about seventy-five yards to this second bunker—you know which one—and had this bird ask them to surrender. You ought to have seen this Kraut. He was a Wehrmacht, regular army, and he kept saying, 'Bitty. S. S. S.' He meant they were those real bad ones and they would kill him if he asked them to surrender. He yelled at them to come on out, and they wouldn't come. They wouldn't answer. So we pulled the Wump gun up to the backdoor just like the other time and yelled to them to come out, and they wouldn't come. So we put in about ten shots from the Wump gun and then they came out—what was left of them. They were a sad and bedraggled lot. Every one of them was in awful shape.

"They were SS boys, all of them, and they got down in the road, one by one, on their knees. They expected to get shot. But we were obliged to disappoint them. There were about twelve that got out. The rest were all blown to pieces and wounded all to hell. There were legs and arms and heads scattered all over that goddam place.

"We had so many prisoners and nobody to guard them but the Colonel and I and Smith and the Wump gun, so we sort of sat around there until things sort of clarified. After a while a medical aide came up and looked at the French boy, Roger. He was lying there all the time and when they came to dress him, he said, 'Mon colonel, je suis content. I am happy to die on German soil.'

"They put a tag on him reading 'Free French' and I said, 'The hell with that,' and changed the tag to read 'Company L.'

"Every time I think about that Frenchman, it makes me want to get to killing Krauts again.". . .

There is a lot more to the story. Maybe that is as much as you can take today. I could write you just what I Company did, what the other two battalions did. I could write for you, if you could take it, what happened at the third bunker and the fourth bunker and at fourteen other bunkers. They were all taken.

If you want to know sometime, get someone who was there to tell you. If you wish, and I can still remember, I will be glad to tell you sometime what it was like in those woods for the next ten days; about all the counterattacks and about the German artillery. It is a very, very interesting story if you can remember it. Probably it has even epic elements. Doubtless sometime you will even see it on the screen.

The Cinematic Possibilities

It probably is suitable for screen treatment, because I remember the Colonel saying, "Ernie, a lot of the time I felt as though I were at a Grade B picture and kept saying to myself, 'This is where I came in.'"

The only thing that will probably be hard to get properly in the picture is the German SS troops, their faces black from the concussion, bleeding at the nose and mouth, kneeling in the road, grabbing their stomachs, hardly able to get out of the way of the tanks, though probably the cinema will be able to make this even more realistic. But a situation like that is the fault of the engineers who, when they designed those concussion-proof doors, did not expect to have 10.5-mm. Wump guns come up and fire point-blank at them from behind.

That was not provided for when the specifications were laid down. And sometimes, observing such sad sights and such elaborate preparations gone wrong, I have a feeling that it really would have been better for Germany not to have started this war in the first place.