November 22, 2011

1944. Bill Downs in Normandy

Bill Downs Broadcasting from Normandy - June 18, 1944


NORMANDY - JUNE 18, 1944
I have just returned from another one of those "little wars"—an isolated battle which is becoming more and more common in this ever-growing struggle for Europe. 
This little war in no way ranks in importance with the American drive across the Cherbourg Peninsula. Everyone on the British-Canadian sector of the front regards the cutting of the peninsula the most important single achievement since the Allied troops crossed the beaches of Normandy. But the Battle of the Hindenburg and Bleecker bastions in which I participated is the perfect example of the type of fighting that is going to occur more and more as our armies advance. I was with the Royal Marine Commandos which took these two strong points. I didn't intend to go with the commandos—it just happened that way.

We haven't been able to tell you before, but just west of the city of Caen, a group of Germans has been holding out for the past ten days in two very strong defense points. These strong points, about one hundred yards apart, were built along the lines of a miniature Maginot Line. They were dug twelve feet into the ground, filled with reinforced concrete with walls three feet thick, and several medium artillery guns. The whole position was set on a rise of ground surrounded by mine fields and an intricate trench system. The Germans were so proud of these defenses that they printed the names "Hindenburg" on one of the super pillboxes and "Bleecker" on the other. The Hindenburg and Bleecker bastions were so strong that it was decided to bypass them on D-Day, and let this group of Nazis stew in their own juice. There was no hurry—the Germans couldn't do much damage there. They were completely isolated and could be cleaned out at will. 
Yesterday, the order came to blast them out.

The strange thing about this battle was that to get there, you merely turned off a busy Allied supply route jammed with trucks. You drove a block up another road, parked your Jeep up behind the hedge, and on the other side of the hedge was the war. For half an hour, artillery whistled over our heads, bursting all over the Nazi island of resistance. Direct hits sent bits of masonry high into the air—dust from the bursting shells mixed with the black smoke of exploding mines and a burning gasoline dump to darken the sun. We were only some two hundred yards from where the shells were landing, and you had an uncontrollable tendency to duck your head just a little every time a shell came over. The artillery punctuated the barrage with shrapnel shells that burst in the air downward into the trenches. Then the barrage stopped and the tanks moved in. There were a dozen of them approaching from two directions. They crawled forward, their machine guns and heavy guns ripping into the super pillbox. Behind them moved the commandos.

I was watching the battle with Richard McMillan of the United Press. When the tanks moved in, we couldn't see very much so we decided to walk up behind the nearest one and have a look. Out of the embrasures of the two bastions, heavy German machine guns fired in our direction. We clamped down in the tall wheat, but no matter how low you got you still felt as if you were sticking up as high as the Empire State Building. 
The funny thing about it was that we weren't particularly frightened. We were too excited to be afraid. McMillan, the British conducting officer, and myself were tremendously surprised to find ourselves in with the commandos. We had followed their attacks so closely that we had actually got caught up in the middle of it. 
Up ahead, an assault engineer climbed on top of the Hindenburg bastion and placed a charge of explosives on it. As soon as he lit the fuse he ran like the very devil. We all ducked. The heavy explosion must have blown a hole in the top of the pillbox. Other commandos crept up to this hole and tossed in hand grenades. One explosion set the whole works off. Out of the hole came a German "potato masher" grenade. It was on fire. We ducked again, but it didn't go off.

By this time we had reached the trench system. On both sides of us men were going along the trenches with their Tommy guns. A tank assaulted one of the trenches and behind it was a young radio operator calmly chewing a stalk of wheat, waiting to flash the words that the bastion had been taken. Shouts of "come on out of there you Nazi so-and-so's" and "keep your hands up you such-and-such" announced the arrival of the 1st Troop. Then they began to pop up like prairie dogs. All told, there were between a hundred and fifty and two hundred of them. 
For the number of them, the Nazis resisted surprisingly weakly. It took only two squadrons of commandos to dig them out. The tanks merely stood by and watched after they had escorted these troops into position. We lined them up; they were as shaken a group of men as I've ever seen. 
There were all shapes and sizes of Nazis. Big ones, little ones, old, and young. But the most surprising discovery made was a large number of ordinary chicken's eggs in the bastion. The surprise was that these eggs were fresh. We could not confirm earlier reports that the Germans had women in the strong point with them. There also was plenty of food, and we shared a bottle of brandy with the victorious commandos. It was a glorious feeling being in on a success like that. But even so, I believe it's the last time that I want to be that close to a practicing commando in action. 
This is Bill Downs in Normandy, returning you to the United States.