The Village of Suresnes, France, May 15, 1940
M. Paul Giroud had, for the last few years, followed the lead of Therese de Coulaincourt in politics. Indeed, he had helped her put through most of the schemes of her father and that extraordinary German-American, Klaus Seydlitz. At times, Giroud had attracted favorable notice. Some of the papers had deemed him likely to be appointed a minister, and there had even been some speculation that he might eventually become Prime Minister. But that had been at the beginning, when he was making a bit of a splash with his stand on defense. It had seemed that supporters were flocking to him from all parts of the political spectrum. Moreover, Therese had made him feel a bit of a hero.
More recently, he had discovered that, all along, he had been creating enemies at a slightly faster rate than allies. Therese had kept urging perseverance, and, for a while, he had persevered. In the last year, his pace had slackened noticeably. He realized that he had taken a wrong turn, and that there was no going back. He had then spent a few weeks in a sanitorium. When he emerged, Therese treated him much less like a hero. She had gotten most of what she had wanted, but she still didn't drop him. It was only that he now sometimes felt as if he had gone from being her mentor to her mascot.
Now, in the early days of the German attack on France, things seemed to be going quite well. According to the accounts on the radio and in the press, the Germans were being thrown back in some places, and were having only limited success in others. It looked as if they wouldn't occupy as much of France as they had the last time.
The only thing that M. Giroud found at all surprising was his own present location, in a village some 80 kilometers from the front line. Therese's father, General Brossard, had one of his hidden railway sidings a little west of the village and Therese had wanted to come with him as he supervised operations. The general hadn't wanted her, but she had simply made reservations at the village inn and come anyway.
She had also dragged Giroud along with her. He didn't enjoy country inns, and the prospect of several days of Therese's uninterrupted company was somewhat daunting. There were times, particularly in the middle of long and tortuous political discussions, when he felt like suggesting to her that she make all his political decisions for him. He would then be free to follow his literary pursuits with a reasonable degree of serenity.
On the other hand, Therese did have an unmatched style and beautiful clothes. She had also kept her weight down recently. Moreover, he was having more difficulty with his wife than usual. He had therefore accoutered himself with tweeds and a walking stick. He was willing to give the countryside a chance.
The village was actually a fairly bustling place. Main roads from the north, south and east all met there, with a secondary road leading off to the west. In addition, Suresnes lay both on the river Aisne and on the Ardennes barge canal running parallel to it. Along the canal bank, and opposite the town hall, there were pleasant cafes where one could sit and poke discreet fun at the natives. Much as Giroud would have liked to remain at one of these cafes, he couldn't dissuade Therese from a walk in the country. She chose the road leading west to the neighboring village of Pontavert.
Since the winding road followed the north bank of the Aisne, a stream of moderate size, the atmosphere was a pleasant one. They hadn't gone terribly far before the river and road both took a sharp turn to the right, and then went straight for a couple of kilometers. At the bend, the river was almost beneath the left hand edge of the road. Ahead, the road diverged from the stream somewhat, leaving an area of sand and grass in between. The valley of the river was steep enough so that the earth had been cut away from the hillside to make the road, with a stone retaining wall running as far as they could see. Therese was quite pleased. She said,
"From this bend on, no vehicle will be able to turn off the road to the right and climb the hill. I don't think there's even a cart track to interrupt the retaining wall."
She then pointed to the river and continued,
"It's much too deep to be forded by vehicles, and men would have to abandon their equipment and boots to swim across."
"Where are the guns?"
"The armored train must be hidden somewhere in the distance. I'm sure it's sited so as to have command of this stretch of road. The mines ought to be right about where we're standing."
Giroud began to edge back toward the village as he asked,
"How do you know that?"
"Don't worry. They'll be activated only at the right time. The man with the switch is probably right up there."
Therese gestured toward the hill above them and explained,
"The man there will watch the enemy column go by, and will then blow up the road, perhaps catching the last few vehicles. There'll be no possible retreat. The explosion of the mines will be the signal for the artillery to open up."
As they walked back toward Suresnes, Giroud said,
"I can see that the trap is a murderous one. And I don't say that with the kind of joy a military man might feel. I don't approve of butchering men who'd be virtually helpless. But what makes your father think the German tanks will come here even if they do break through? There are lots of other villages in France."
"That's the tricky part, of course. But the reasoning is this. My father thinks they'll break through just north of the Maginot Line, in the area Montmedy-Sedan. We then don't know whether they'll head for Paris, or for the Channel Coast to cut off our armies and the British Expeditionary Force. But, either way, they'll have to start west. If they then want to go to the coast, they'll turn north. The obvious objective is Reims, just about 20 kilometers due south of us here.
However, the German General Guderian has written that tanks should be kept out of city streets whenever possible. If one wishes to avoid Reims by going north of it, one will find that the roads converge on Suresnes. It happens that there's only one road to the west from Suresnes, this one."
Giroud, unconvinced, replied,
"Couldn't they just as easily go north from Suresnes to Laon, and then turn west there? That's also a better road."
"They may well start in that direction. However, the road north is heavily mined, and there aren't any mines on this road until this bend. Guderian has also written that, having broken through the enemy line, tanks should follow the path of least resistance. That doctrine makes it possible for us to direct their movements. We'll funnel them to our guns."
Giroud had nothing to say, but again gently urged Therese back toward Suresnes. When they reached the outskirts of the town, they took a right turn along a street of shops. After crossing a bridge over the Aisne, they soon came to the canal. On the other side was an avenue of bare earth with trees planted in a row down the middle. In the reddish dust under these trees were several small groups of people, evidently idlers. In contrast to their immobility, a woman pushed a baby carriage over the rough surface. She looked rather tough, and, in passing, cast a malevolent glance at a couple of men who might have been thinking about beginning to unload a canal boat.
Behind the avenue, there was a row of houses. They were unpretentious, and in a style more Dutch than French, all right angles and narrowing to a single room on the top storey. Giroud joked that the culture of canals had followed this one all the way from Holland. Whatever the architectural antecedents of the houses, the rose-colored dust had shaded them uniformly, with only the green doors and shutters providing contrast. Behind the houses there was a church steeple of surprising height and attractiveness, with an octagonal balcony above a clock. Therese wanted to cross over to it.
The nearest way across at this point was by the narrow walkway along the gates of a lock. Therese managed it more easily than Giroud. As they passed the groups of people, they heard talk of the war. Therese spoke with some surprise,
"From across the canal they looked as if they didn't know there was a war on, and wouldn't care if there was."
"Well, it still doesn't look as if they have any inclination to do anything about it."
A narrow street between houses led away from the canal and into a market square. Although the market wasn't open, the inevitable bare ground in the middle was spanned by a network of pipes over which awnings would be spread on market days. A tall man might have bumped his head on the pipes, but Therese and Giroud walked easily under them, almost to the stone steps of the large church. There was a knot of people, this time engaged in more animated conversation. It was here, for the first time, that they heard the sort of wild rumor about German tanks that General Brossard had predicted.
The group consisted of two middle-aged men, the woman with the baby carriage they had seen earlier, an elderly woman, and a boy. It seemed to be the taller of the men who had the story. Raffish and ill-kempt, he looked a social cut below all the others except, perhaps, the woman with the baby.
Few people would have talked with him in ordinary circumstances, but he was now the center of attention. The tanks, he said, had broken through at Sedan. They were now to the south at Reims, to the north at Laon, and even to the west at Soissons. Suresnes was surrounded. The other man, stout and phlegmatic, sucked at his pipe. Speaking as a war veteran, he made authoritative and gloomy predictions. The German tanks would soon be in Paris.
This confirmation visibly increased the confidence of the first man. Tanks, he said, had actually been seen in Verdun, Chalons, St. Quentin, and other places. He gestured for silence, as if listening for the roar of an armored monster approaching the square. There was, in fact, no sound but the odd croaking of a group of nearby pigeons. Despite this disappointing outcome, the young woman picked up her baby protectively and became voluble. Would the food and water be cut off? Would their houses be burnt? What would happen to them when the German plunderers and rapists arrived?
It looked as if, in addition to tank fever, there would be a resurrection of all the myths of the last war. The boy looked on wide-eyed, and the older woman began to snivel. The army veteran advised the women to immediately set out on the road west to Pontavert before it became clogged with refugees.
Therese, who had been standing next to the group, intervened immediately. She said she had the latest information. There were no tanks anywhere in the vicinity. However, German aircraft were machine-gunning the roads. One should on no account set out for Pontavert. If war came to Suresnes, the safest thing was to stay in one's house.
Therese shot a malevolant look directly at the man who had brought the rumor. He then slunk away, again consigned to the social outback from which he had come. When Therese was again alone with Giroud, she grabbed his arm in agitation.
"Oh God, I never thought about refugees. Suppose that road gets filled with people on foot and with carts, and that woman pushing her baby along."
"Your father must have anticipated that. He'll have closed the road to civilians by this time."
"That's not easily done if a panic starts. Probably we can hold on to things here if nothing else happens. However, if refugees start arriving from the east with atrocity stories, there'll be no way of stopping the flood."
Giroud spoke comfortingly.
"If the German tanks really have broken through, and they're what they're
supposed to be, they'll get here before the refugees."
Major Johannes Fink stretched himself uncomfortably in the passenger seat of the small truck. A big man, he found no position really comfortable as they bounced along, but made do as best he could. As commander of the Reconnaissance Battalion of the 7th Panzer Division, he had placed himself in the fifth vehicle in the line of advance. He was just far enough back to avoid the brunt of the occasional ambushes, but near enough the front to know instantly what was going on.
En route, all civilian traffic was cleared from the road. If necessary, it was thrown into the ditches. Major Fink could thus use the left lane to pass vehicles up and down the formation, and to change his own position.
The battalion contained an unholy mixture of vehicles whose functions could be woven together only with skill. There were fifty-five motorcycles, three kinds of armored cars, two half tracks pulling howitzers, two kinds of trucks, many large passenger cars, and Kubelwagens, the wartime version of the civilian Volkswagen.
The motorcycles had proved almost useless in their intended application. If sent out in advance, as originally envisaged, they were extremely easy to ambush. Even oil dumped on the road sent them careening into ditches. Major Fink now used some of them to maintain communications with the main body of the division, which was often a considerable distance behind him. In that role they were more reliable than the often malfunctioning radio sets. The rest of the motorcyclists trailed the formation, and could be used to scout off to the sides. In the absence of any other employment, they could dismount and be used as infantry.
The armored cars were much better. The four-wheeled ones, mounting light machine guns, were fast. With driving positions facing in both directions, they could, on encountering trouble, immediately reverse and retreat at speed. The six-wheeled cars, not quite as fast, had considerably more armor, and mounted heavy machine guns. The heavy eight-wheeled cars, with 20mm cannon, were really the equivalent of light tanks in firepower and armor.
Four of the light cars led the formation with four more near the rear. The rest of the armored cars were placed right after Major Fink's command vehicle.
Even faster than the armored cars were the kubelwagens, but they were, of course, only slightly less vulnerable than the motorcycles. Fink had placed them in the middle of the formation, where they were assigned the task of scouting side roads on which it was expected that they would encounter no enemy forces. Thus, when they came to a country crossroads, a kubelwagen would tear off along a dirt road and eliminate the unlikely possibility that an enemy force was lying in wait on the flank, ready to ambush the main body of the division. Having bounced past the neighboring farms and orchards, the kubelwagen would return to the main road, and would be able to catch up with the rest of the battalion.
The infantry component, amounting to almost two hundred men, was formed into platoons of varying size, each with a different mode of transport. The motorcyclists constituted one platoon. Another rode in ex-civilian passenger cars. Since these were of every conceivable type, the battalion at times created a most unfortunate impression, reminiscent of a used car parade, as it rolled past. More military in appearance was the platoon that rode in four large covered trucks of standard army design.
The main shortcoming of these vehicles was that they couldn't operate effectively off the roads. For that there were the light trucks carrying the last of the infantry platoons. While they didn't have tracks, their six wheels were all powered, and they had a very high proportion of power to weight. There weren't many places a tank could go where they couldn't go. Fink himself rode in one of them.
Last, and in many ways least, were the two half tracks required to pull the 75mm howitzers. The only tracked vehicles in the battalion, they slowed the formation down, and Fink often left them behind. On the other hand, the two 75s were, by far, the most powerful guns he possessed. As such, they played an important role in his standard tactics.
In the form of tank warfare that was gradually evolving, the Recon Battalion, without any tanks, actually did more fighting than the two tank regiments of the division. The Recon Battalion was, after all, out in front, and was virtually always operating more or less alone in enemy territory. A French reserve unit whose commander had a taste for glory would generally take a crack at it. Such commanders seldom had the patience to wait for the tanks to arrive, nor did they welcome the rather ambiguous situation in which they would have the Recon Battalion behind them and the rest of the division in front of them. Glory was one thing, but suicide something else again.
The average French commander in the path of a tank division would react by constructing a road block and arranging behind it, and to the sides, whatever he had in the way of anti-tank guns, machine guns, and infantry support. If he had any artillery batteries, they would be well in the rear, their guns registered on the road in front of the barricade.
Major Fink had already dealt with this situation several times, and was confident of his tactics. If the roadblock was of a sort that couldn't be charged through, the light armored cars retreated quickly while spraying the enemy with machine gun fire. The heavier armored cars drew up to support them while the howitzers opened fire on the barricade. Meanwhile, the light trucks, led by Fink, would, if at all possible, move off the road and circle around to take the enemy in the flank or rear. When they were in position, the trucks would open fire with their machine guns while their platoon of infantry moved forward to probe the enemy position.
It was then that Fink would make his decision. If the enemy force was too strong, he would simply withdraw his battalion, covering his retreat from the flanks. If not, he would bring up the rest of his infantry and attack. So far, they had been able to rout all the enemy forces they had encountered.
At the moment, Major Fink's battalion constituted the southern, or left-most, spearhead of the mass of armor that had broken through across the Meuse. His present assignment was to proceed to Rethel and, from there, scout out alternative routes that the 7th Panzer Division might take. He now wished to get to Rethel as quickly as possible in order to have the maximum time to scout before the arrival of the main units of the division.
Of course, if the bridges over the Ardennes canal and the Aisne were blown, as they certainly ought to be, he could scout only to the southwest until the Engineer Battalion arrived and got a pontoon bridge across. Still, the major was hopeful. From what he had seen of the French, the bridges might not be blown.
Suddenly, Fink had his driver sound his horn three times while he himself stood to give the hand signal for more speed. They would leave the half tracks and howitzers behind in the hope of getting to the bridges before they were blown. In this hilly country every curve presented an opportunity for an ambush, but, unless they abandoned caution, they'd never get anywhere.
It was always the same when they arrived in a town. Everyone disappeared into their houses. However, Fink could always see people peeking out from between shutters. At first, he had worried about snipers, but he now put it down to curiosity. These people, brought up on propaganda posters, wanted to get a glimpse of the monsters who wished to rape their grandmothers.
The day before, Fink had offered candy to a lone child in a village square, only to have her run screaming from him. He had found this episode depressing. It also boded ill for the new unified Europe he hoped he was helping to create. On this day, however, his mind was on purely military matters, most especially the small drawbridge he could see at the end of the street.
When they arrived at the canal bank a minute later, Fink jumped out, glad to stretch his legs. He wasn't sure that the bridge would support the weight of a tank, but, if not, it could be strengthened. His own men had now completed their inspection, and, finding no wires, they waved the first armored car across. When it had just rolled on to the short span, there was an explosion that shook the ground.
When Fink recovered and ran to the bank, the smoke cleared just enough to reveal the armored car, right side up, but partly immersed in the canal. One man was clambering out. The explosive had been concealed in the stone pier on the other side, and had blown the span neatly away from its moorings.
Fink was almost certain that there was a man at a window in one of the buildings opposite who had closed a switch to blow the bridge at exactly the right time. He was probably now feeling quite pleased, but there was no question of wasting time trying to find him. Fink instead addressed his infantry commander, Captain Bossmann, who was standing at his elbow.
"The engineers aren't far away, and they could bridge the canal easily enough. But I suppose the same thing would happen with the bridge over the Aisne."
"That would require a pontoon bridge, and those are easier to lay out in the countryside where the banks aren't stone or concrete."
"We'll have to go back to the last intersection and take the road west to Suresnes. Get us moving as fast as possible while I radio to division."
As Fink had his message sent off, he realized that he was, in effect, making a decision that would determine the course of the division, the corps, and, very likely, the entire 6th Army. He was taking that whole mass of armor and men further west than it had been intended to go before turning north.
There was really little choice. The French were sufficiently disorganized so that the bridges at Suresnes might not be mined even if the ones at Rethel were. Anyway, failing that, he had to find a place where the banks of the Aisne sloped gradually up to the road, so as to allow vehicles access to a pontoon bridge. Fink prided himself on having developed an engineer's eye, and was sure he could find a good crossing.
On the ride back south, Fink blamed himself for not having sent a detachment to Suresnes in the first place. The twenty minutes that would have been saved would have put them twenty kilometers further out in front of the division. In any case, he was very glad when they arrived at the intersection before the engineer battalion, also operating in front of the main body. They were thus able to turn west without getting involved in the kind of traffic jam which was the nemesis of any sort of motorized division.
Suresnes was only a slightly smaller town than Rethel, and the canal again lay in its southern outskirts. Roaring through a market square in front of a large church, the leading three armored cars soon screeched to a stop beside the canal. Fink, knowing that the division could not be far behind him, gave way to his impatience and spoke to his driver. The latter pulled around the armored cars, pressed the accelerator all the way down, and headed for the bridge. The truck leaped into the air when they reached the bump where the span joined the abutment, but there was no explosion. As the rest of the battalion crossed, a squad of motorcyclists was detached to guard the bridge.
After getting lost very briefly, they arrived at the Aisne. The considerably larger bridge here was also crossed without incident, and squads were detached to guard each end. Once over, Fink sent a radio message through to division. There was no acknowledgement, so he had it repeated. Again, there was no answer. Yet another radio foul-up! A motorcycle dispatch rider was sent off.
In the absence of any orders, Fink was left to make his own choice of roads. This was surely the time to split the battalion to cover both roads. Fink set off with the leading half west toward Pontavert while the rest headed due north for Laon.
It was an open question which route the division would prefer. They were south of where they had intended to go, and might thus wish to go north to Laon and Montcornet. On the other hand, Fink knew the generals involved. They would be more interested in a deep westward penetration of the enemy front than in remaining in close touch with the tank corps on their right. They could always swing north later on to close up any gaps which might have appeared. It was with this in mind that Fink chose to personally scout the westward route.
They had gone only a short distance when they encountered a sharp turn and a sight which Fink found profoundly disturbing. They had passed hundreds of curves which could have concealed ambushes, but this one was different. A long straight valley with the Aisne on one side and a bank on the other, it looked the perfect place to lure a motorized force. Men could scramble up the bank, but, once the road was blocked, there could be no escape for vehicles. Artillery properly sited would command the whole valley, and could destroy an entire division.
Under ordinary circumstances, Fink would have hesitated to even enter it himself. But it was his business to find out what trouble might lie in store for the division. There was one good way to find out.
After they had gone a kilometer, there came into clear view a high railway bridge crossing the road and river at right angles. Fink stopped the formation, jumped out, and spoke to the commander of the armored cars in front. There had been rumors of French armored trains, and one crossing that bridge would command the road. His orders were simple.
"Drive up to that bridge and mine it. If an ordinary train comes, let it pass. If the train stops and opens up with artillery, blow it up. Otherwise, remain by the bridge and guard it. We don't want to drop it across the road if we can help it."
Once the armored cars drove off, men were detailed to search the hill above them. What most immediately worried Fink, however, was the hill across the river. Mortars could easily be placed just over the ridge to drop their shells on the road while the hill screened them from answering fire.
All the remaining motorcyclists were sent back to Suresnes with instructions to search the area south of the river. With any luck, there would be dirt tracks and country lanes cris-crossing the hills. In case there weren't, it would be wise to put some men across immediately. He would send a squad down to walk across the railway bridge, but he wanted information on the opposite hill-top, and it would take too long for the men to walk back from the bridge.
If their rubber boat hadn't been torn badly, he would have used that. As it was, Major Fink called for Lieutenant Gerstmann and told him to find a dozen men in his platoon who were good swimmers.
Within ten minutes, Fink's vehicles were scattered up and down the three
kilometer length of the defile. The swimmers were now laboriously climbing
the other bank. A couple had managed to get their boots across, and were
now taking the lead. Another, doing the backstroke, had held a pair of
binoculars above the water with one hand. Once across, he had given them
to one of the men with boots.
Corporal Erich Hals, wet and almost naked in the chilly air, found that he could keep reasonably warm by running up the hillside. Although his boots gave him good footing in the low scrub, occasional bushes with thorns tore painfully at his bare legs. If there were French troops at the top, he found it hard to imagine how they might react to the sight of a naked man rushing at them with a pair of binoculars. They probably wouldn't shoot.
The top of the hill revealed only fields with not a man in sight. There were no roads, and the terrain was too rough for motorcycles. Hals realized that he was the man best placed to scout the whole area south of the Aisne, at least for the time being. Dropping to one knee, he began to systematically cover the hundred and eighty degree arc. Beginning at short range, it was necessary to traverse the arc many times, each time elevating the binoculars very slightly. Only in that way could he be sure of mot missing anything. Moreover, if there were French batteries, they would almost surely be positioned on the more distant hills so that they could fire high and let their shells drop on the road on the other side of the river. To examine a distant hilltop sufficiently carefully to see a camouflaged battery was no small undertaking.
During the half hour it took him to complete his survey, Hals heard some explosions far to the north, where the war was evidently going on. In his sector, however, there was nothing of interest until the arrival of traffic on the road leading north to Suresnes. Momentarily alarmed, he got a clear glimpse of the road just in time to see a Panzer IV. The main body of the 7th Panzer division was only a few minutes from the town. Realizing that his report would be needed immediately, Hals sent one of the other men running back with the news that all was clear south of the river.
Since his hilltop location also gave him a better view of the country
to the north of the river than would be available even from the high ground
on the other side, Hals improved his time by beginning a search of that
area. He wished that he had found a farmhouse from which to commandeer
some clothes, but the nearest ones were too far away. In any case, he might
well have been greeted with a pitchfork. He nevertheless found that he
could lie prone to keep out of the wind, and still train his binoculars
on the most important hill, which lay to the west just north of the river.
On the road, Major Fink was so anxious that he jumped down to the river bank to meet the man who was swimming across. The man had shouted something from the other side, but no one had caught what he said.
In the other direction, north toward Montcornet, the news had been all bad. There was one minefield after another, and three of the eight-wheeled armored cars had been lost. This, in itself, was significant. If the mines had been magnetic, or tripped by pressure on the road, they would have gone off when the first vehicle crossed. The fact that only the most valuable vehicles had been destroyed meant that there was someone watching from the distance, or from a treetop, and detonating the mines when he chose.
There might be indefinitely many such mines which could be detonated at any time. It would be impractical to try to find the men controlling them, and the probable losses in that direction must be assumed to be prohibitive. That meant that the division would almost certainly have to come Fink's way.
Unfortunately, there hadn't been time to scout nearly as thoroughly as Fink would have liked. He had sent a party a good distance up the road, and was prepared to cut the railway. He had also sent men up the hillside above him at many points, and had gone up himself. But one couldn't expect to see anything that was camouflaged at any distance.
None of the motorcyclists had returned. The man now swimming would be bringing the first intelligence of the whole south bank.
The swimmer was still wading out of the water when he was met with questions from Major Fink. The answers were quite satisfactory. According to Captain Bossmann, Hals was a reliable man. Indeed, Fink had himself noticed him favorably on a number of occasions. If Hals had spent half an hour with binoculars on the hillside, any battery south of the Aisne would have to be very well hidden to have escaped detection. It would take organization to thoroughly hide a battery, and also register it on a distant road. The French had certainly been capable of it in the last war. But this was an entirely different French Army.
Informed that the division was now entering Suresnes, Fink sent a message recommending the route to Pontavert as being clear.
The Recon Battalion was now in considerable disarray. The large detachment that had gone north hadn't been heard from since the reports of mining, and it was presumably now returning to Suresnes, where its elements would be confused with those of the tank regiments and the motorized infantry regiment.
There were motorcyclists scattered all over the countryside to the south. They would also have to get past the division, and would trickle in only slowly. There was still a handful of naked men, including Hals, across the river. Most of the rest of Fink's infantry had fanned out over the hillside above the right bank, and would now have to be collected by the vehicles scattered up and down the road.
Fink would have liked to have his battalion well out in front of the division, in its proper place. However, the apparent threat had been great enough to necessitate the scattering of the force to conduct as thorough a search as time allowed. There was now nothing to do but collect at least part of the battalion before setting out again. Having given the necessary order, Fink confessed his misgivings to Bossmann.
"We should have searched the hills up ahead on the right bank."
The other replied,
"We've covered most of the high ground as far as the railway bridge."
Seeing that the major still wasn't satisfied, Bossmann gestured to the distance and continued,
"If you mean the hills beyond those, I wouldn't worry too much. We might be within extreme range, but the fire wouldn't be accurate."
"I hope not. Ordinarily, I'd like to be that far ahead of the division. But we can't split the battalion any further and have anything left. We're on the verge of losing control as it is. Unless we get things together smartly, we're going to create a traffic jam and hold up the advance."
As Fink got back into his truck, Bossmann hurried off, shouting orders.
The plan was to drive slowly along, collecting men as they jumped down
from the retaining wall. Two thirds of the way to the railway bridge, hopefully
still ahead of the division, they would stop briefly to sort themselves
out and get the right men in the right vehicles. Any laggards still up
on the hillside would be left behind.
Back on top of his hill, Erich Hals finally saw something that interested him. It was on a hillside in the distance, and looked black and solid. To Hals' relief, it didn't look at all like a gun. On the other hand, it didn't look like any farm implement he could imagine, or like anything else one might find in an orchard. In fact, it looked a little like the top of a locomotive.
But that was impossible. The railway that crossed the bridge ran along the base of the hills, probably thrugh cuts. The difference in elevation was so great that, even if there had been a connecting track, no train could have ascended it.
It then occurred to Hals that there could be a spur which left the main
line a good distance north, climbing gradually to this hill. It would then
have to dead end in an orchard above the Aisne. Hals knew something about
railways. When a line reached a dead end, there was always something there,
a factory or a town, to justify its existence. As hard as he looked, he
could see nothing more. On the contrary, he began to see less. At last,
he wondered if he had really seen anything at all. Then, lowering his binoculars,
he realized that he would have to hurry to rejoin his unit. He would report
that he had seen something suspicious on a hillside well beyond the railway
Fink had expected the engineer battalion to come next, and was somewhat surprised when tanks came crawling around the bend and headed down the straight stretch. His own unit was still collecting men from the hillside, and a truck had remained behind to pick up the last of the swimmers. Whether it would be able to do so before having to move to get out of the way of the tanks was an open question. If not, there would be a few naked men riding on the tops of tanks until the next halt.
There really wasn't a great deal for Fink to do during the next ten minutes as his vehicles drove slowly down the road. They were just keeping ahead of the armor accumulating behind them, and he knew better than to interfere. His subordinates were quite capable of getting things organized, and orders from himself would only cause delay. Still, like many another commander, he found inactivity frustrating. He was, after all, coming perilously close to committing the cardinal sin of holding up the armor in its drive across enemy territory.
When they halted a few hundred meters short of the railway bridge, Fink got out on to the shoulder of the road. His officers were waving vehicles around each other into correct position, and he forced himself to look down into the river. There was, at this point, a series of small rapids which extended under, and past, the bridge. To Fink's amazement, there was a lone fisherman just beyond the bridge, anchored in his rowboat.
It was a great relief when Bossmann announced that they were ready to go. The tanks were now only a couple of hundred meters behind them. In fact, it was an unfamiliar and heady feeling to be directly at the head of a tight-packed formation which included two hundred tanks and a full regiment of infantry. This situation was, of course, temporary. They would soon outdistance the rest of the division and, as usual, sweep away any pockets of opposition without requiring any help from the tanks.
To Fink's irritation, there was yet one more delay. Lieutenant Gerstmann was running toward his truck with a man with bare legs and a tunic around his shoulders. Fink recognized Corporal Hals, and motioned for him to jump on the running board so that they could start up.
With many engines roaring, it was hard to make out what Hals was saying, particularly since he seemed uncertain as to what he had seen. Fink, in a not terribly patient mood, was about to put some sharp questions to him when there was an explosion in the road directly ahead.
As the clods of dirt and other material dropped around them, Fink assumed that his men had blown up the railway bridge. However, when the smoke cleared, the bridge was still there. It was another of those confounded road mines. The light armored car in the lead had simply disappeared, but that was the least of their problems. Since the engineer battalion was somewhere in the rear, they'd have to fill in the hole themselves. Anyhow, that would be much easier than clearing away the debris of a wrecked bridge. At worst, they could have a tank crunch a personnel carrier or two in the crater, and then shovel dirt into the remaining crevices.
While Fink was standing at the edge of the crater, wondering if such an expedient would work, there was an even bigger explosion in the rear. Having now forgotten about Hals and his report, Fink jumped aboard a nearby armored car and climbed on top of its turret. He could see all the way back past both tank regiments and the infantry in half tracks. It looked as if the entire road embankment at the bend had been blown into the river. It was then that pandemonium began.
Both Fink and Gerstmann realized quickly that they weren't under ordinary artillery fire. It hadn't yet reached them, but, looking back, they could see whole tanks being lifted and hurled off the road. Gerstmann shouted that Hals thought he had seen a locomotive up on the hillside in the distance. That was more than Fink had gotten out of Hals himself, but he now saw what was happening. It was certainly an armored train, and it would have guns of at least 200 millimeters. The long range was no impediment to them.
Knowing that he had gotten his division neatly trapped, Fink passed the word back for one of the larger passenger cars. He then ordered all personnel to prepare to push other vehicles off the road down to the river bank. Wheeled vehicles wouldn't be able to drive over a wrecked car in a hole, but, with the Recon Battalion out of the way, the tanks could come forward and escape. They might even be able to advance on the armored train and give it some of its own medicine.
The barrage had dropped first on the regiment of infantry in the rear of the division. They were in open trucks, and most of them were slaughtered. The barrage then crept slowly up the column of tanks. Some were shooting back, but they were hopelessly outranged, and their crews would have done better to run for the hillside or the river. However, it wasn't the tradition of the German army to abandon its arms under fire. Crews waited in their tanks, packed together too tightly to maneuver, as the barrage came inexorably toward them.
Fink, meanwhile, had had the passenger car placed upright in the crater. Its rounded top stuck up, but the first tank would squash it flat. Fink hoped that the squashed car would sufficiently fill the bottom of the hole to allow the tanks to get through. For good measure, the only motorcycles they had available were shoved between the car and the sides of the crater.
Vehicles were being tipped off the road in a neat line. Since part of his battalion could be lined up on one lane, leaving the other free, Fink was tempted to try to save it. However, even in the deafening uproar, he knew better. The barrage would eventually get to them, and two free lanes would be necessary to allow the tanks that weren't hit to avoid shell-holes and wrecked tanks.
The tanks came forward at almost the speed of the barrage. The first one slowed and moved into the hole. The car, placed sideways, collapsed under the weight. The tank half sank in the hole, but kept moving. It had almost ascended the other side when one track started to slip. The Panzer IV was much too heavy for them to push, but Fink had his men throw and shovel every variety of debris under the slipping track. Finally it caught. The tank teetered alarmingly, and then moved triumphantly on to the road. The next tank was waved forward.
When Major Fink came to, he found himself fifty meters up the hillside, stretched out in the high grass. The sound of gunfire was gone, but a tremendous amount of smoke was coming up from the road. All the natural sounds of the countryside were gone, replaced by the peculiar noise of burning vehicles. There were occasional explosions as ammunition was touched off.
Fink could remember having gotten the first tank through, but nothing after that. When he tried to move, he realized that his left leg was broken. There was no pain from that part of his body, but, below the knee, the leg made an angle of some thirty degrees where it should have been straight. Without thinking, Fink straightened it. The pants leg was bloody, but the injury probably wasn't serious. Dizzy, he leaned back on the grass. He probably also had a concussion. Someone must have dragged or carried him up here. There was no sign of anyone else around. Perhaps his rescuer had gone back for someone else, and been hit himself.
Realizing that he might well be the senior surviving officer in the division, Major Fink turned his mind, still somewhat fuzzy, to the problems of command. The survivors would either be down by the river or up on top of the hill. The former was more likely, but, of course, he had no way of getting back down the bank, across the road filled with blazing equipment, and down to the river. He therefore decided to make his way up the hill.
If he could there find some soldiers, he could get himself carried, find a radio, and get in touch with headquarters. They could send a rescue party and call in an air strike against the artillery train. Fink could tell them exactly where it was.
Progress up the hill was slow. By reaching back with his elbows and
using his good leg, Fink could push himself through the tall grass a little
at a time. Bushes required detours, but he discovered that he could grab
the branches and use them to good effect.