Clay's War Pt. II


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  1. #1

    Clay's War Pt. II

    The first half of Dec. 23 was spent trying to bridge the Sure River. The steep incline of the banks and the swift current would not allow for pontoons or treadway. 3rd Army engineers came up from the rear and constructed a 90-foot Bailey bridge across the river and, by late afternoon, the tanks began to stream into Martelange. The men did not get a chance to rest. The delay at the river had cost too much time and Patton had his eyes on the 4th Armored Division. Light resistance was met while passing through the town. Small squads of Germans were cleared out or suppressed by infantrymen before the tanks passed.

    The tanks moved onward to Chaumont, reaching the village around 1330 on Dec. 23. As the afternoon sun thawed the frozen earth, many tanks were soon churning in the mud and making little or no headway. Since the tanks were unable to enter the village as rapidly as they had hoped, many crews began trying to free themselves from the mud with shovels, while others took a stance of guarded relaxation. Other crews, including Chandler’s, lobbed high explosive 75mm shells into the village to soften any resistance that might be waiting for the rifle platoons advancing on foot and without the benefit of armor. A company of German paratroopers made an attempt at house-to-house fighting, but was rounded up in a few hours with minimal losses on either side.

    Once inside the village, the American troops went about the business of searching for remaining German soldiers. In the process, they would help themselves to whatever wine and liquor they could find in the basements of the destroyed homes. 59 years later, Chandler remembers how the troops would put the German prisoners to use by having them test the contents of unlabeled bottles. At gunpoint, the Germans would take a generous swig from a bottle. If the prisoner did not drop dead or become ill in about five minutes (none of them did), the Americans would then greedily empty the bottles until many of them were stumbling drunk.

    The ease of taking Chaumont had lulled the Americans into a false sense of security. This feeling was about to be shattered. The 26th Volks Grenadier Division, responsible for the Chaumont-Martelange sector, placed the 11th Assault Gun Brigade on the surrounding hills north of the village. Behind the concealment of artillery smoke, ten to fifteen 75mm assault guns rolled down the slopes and towards the unwary American forces.

    Many of the American troops were sleeping off the excessive booze or the 2-day non-stop drive to Chaumont. Chandler was sleeping beside the driver’s seat in his tank, being too tired to unfurl his bedroll. At first, he didn’t recognize the report of the German anti-tank gun, but the fog of his sleep-deprived mind quickly cleared as he hears the cry of “Incoming!” He started towards the turret hatch, where the .50 cal. machinegun was located. Before he could get his feet under him, the mass of the tank shook violently and filled with smoke and the smell of burning paint. A 75mm shell had pierced the turret, leaving Chandler inexplicably unharmed. Without thinking, he grabbed his Thompson sub-machinegun and headed through the escape hatch located under the driver’s seat. In an instant, he had been converted from a tank driver to an infantryman. He took cover in the remains of a shop right next to the burning hulk of his tank. He blindly emptied two magazines towards the belching of the German 75mm gun.

    Thick smoke from the burning tanks began to provide cover for the withdrawal of the American men. They fell back to their original position in the woods South of Chaumont, leaving 11 Sherman tanks and about 65 men as casualties.

    Since Bastogne was the objective, not Chaumont, it was decided to bypass the German-held village through the woods. That night, as the remaining men and tanks moved around the village, Chandler developed a new appreciation for the life of an infantryman. The snow quickly melted into his boots and his feet went numb. Even when riding on the outside of one of the remaining tanks, the frigid wind chilled him to the core. “I was shaking like a dog trying to shit a peach seed,” he remembers.

    The threat of sniper fire from the surrounding woods was another concern he had never had to seriously consider. 24 hours earlier, he had been complaining about the Sherman’s cramped interior and thin armor. That night, he realized that the tight confines had kept him relatively warm and the thin armor was still good enough to stop a bullet.

    When they had reached a safe distance from Chaumont, the battalion took stock of its remaining men and equipment. Several crews had lost men in the surprise barrage by the Germans and Chandler and Rogers were assigned to another tank. Much to their delight, they were now manning Capt. Wright’s brand new M4A3E8 Sherman, which was armed with a 76mm gun capable of penetrating German armor. Both men knew that certain privileges would come with manning the company commander’s tank, as well.

    The battalion got back on the road and continued north. As the sun faded behind the trees on Dec. 24, the head of the task force neared the village of Warnach. It was here that the 748th would see its hardest fight. As armored infantry neared the village, Germans quickly knocked out two half-tracks with anti-tank rounds. The thick forest and marshes around the village made bypassing at night impossible; the town would have to be taken.

    While Shermans armed with 76mm cannons shelled the houses, a light tank platoon and a rifle platoon made their way into the village. After about an hour, only one tank came back, although the majority of the infantry was able to safely retreat. Sometime after midnight, a platoon of Shermans attempted to enter the town, but were stopped by anti-tank fire.

    At daybreak, the assault on Warnach continued. During the night, a few tanks and rifle platoons had made their way around the town and were positioned to attack from three sides. Chandler, now driving the CO’s tank, was not a part of the main assault. He and his crew stayed on the fringes to keep German anti-tank crews from flanking the attacking Shermans. Once the artillery had been eliminated, vicious house-to-house fighting ensued. The German troops showed little interest in surrender and tried several times to escape the confines of the village and surround the American forces within. A few German tank destroyers had survived the initial onslaught and made desperate attempts to get behind the advancing Shermans.

    “Every time we saw one of those little bastards come out of the village, we’d blow it straight to Hell,” Chandler remembers with pride. His crew destroyed two of the Marder tank destroyers and crippled a third.

    By noon, the battle was over. The Americans had killed 135 Germans and taken an equal number prisoner, while losing another 68 men and four tanks. The battle weary men and tanks of the 748th Tank Battalion were relieved and moved to the rear in order to let them rest before the intense battle predicted at Bastogne.

    The battles of Chaumont and Warnach were the heaviest fighting seen by the 748th. Other battalions of the 4th Armored Division pushed on towards Bastogne, taking heavy losses again at Bigonville. As the 748th moved into position to take part in the assault on Bastogne, the weather that had been keeping Allied planes grounded broke and the battle was won before they were able to get there. Once Bastogne had been secured, the 748th remained there as an occupation force, which would be their duty for the remainder of the war in Europe. Shots would still be fired and men would still die, but Clay Chandler never again saw the hell of combat he witnessed on those two days before Christmas 1944.
    "It's not the years; it's the mileage."

    -Indiana Jones

  2. #2
    I felt like I was reading a James Michener Novel. An excellent historical accounting of one of the great battles of World War II. You sure know how to write!


    Warm Regards,
    Bob

  3. #3
    Member
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    Jun 2003
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    nomad for the time being
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    Really fantastic writing. Well done...

    - amie -
    "The writer who loses his self-doubt, who gives way as he grows old to a sudden euphoria, to prolixity, should stop writing immediately: the time has come for him to lay aside his pen." - Colette

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