Tuesday, November 29, 2011
(After playing the Behind Enemy Lines scenario "The Jaws of the Trap" Monday in High Point with Stephen Turner, Jeff Smith, Eric Huffine, and Ken Woody from 7 p.m. to 10:30 p.m.)
By August 1944, the Allies had broken out of Normandy, pushed the Germans back, and retaken Paris. However, the invasion had run out of steam and both sides were consolidated in central France. The Nazis were on the run but the German war machine was still strong.
On August 27, 1944, five soldiers of the 1st Infantry Division had gathered at the tent used by Major Joseph Taylor as his HQ in a tiny, broken village in France. The five had volunteered for what had only been described to each of them as a "dangerous mission" behind enemy lines.
The 19-year-old Corporal Thomas Sawyer had a nickname of "Lefty" because he had been an amateur boxer in his hometown of Chicago, Illinois, and no one ever teased the very large man about his name. He had red hair and a very fair complexion, and looked slim, but it was all muscle. He usually preferred the M1 Garand rifle. He had only been with the 1st Infantry since Normandy and was also trained in demolitions.
Private First Class Norris Polk was from the hills of Tennessee. He was a scrawny kid with sandy brown hair and skin that had been browned from years of working on the farm. A country boy, he had grown up using a cap and ball pistol left over from the civil war. He was an excellent pistol shot and carried a .45 automatic as well as an M1 carbine. His first action with the 1st Infantry had also been at Normandy.
Private First Class Richard "Dick" Carter was from Philadelphia. He was tall and slim with strawberry blonde hair and gray eyes. He was usually armed with a .45 automatic pistol and a Thompson M1 sub-machinegun. He had served with the 1st Infantry since Sicily, having come up Italy with the Big Red One and been part of storming the beaches at Normandy as well. He was rated as a medic.
Buck Private Syd Lafayette was a small, wiry New York City kid. He had a French-Canadian mother and an Italian father, making him very confused about his heritage. He always limited himself to only the equipment he had to carry, often talking other soldiers into carrying his kit and pack as he was not, himself, strong enough to carry it. He tried to limit himself to his rifle and as much ammunition as he could. A sniper, he preferred a Springfield M1903 rifle with a scope. Though it had a smaller magazine and slower action than the M1 Garand, it had a better range. He had served with the 1st Infantry since Italy and had been one of those who stormed the beaches of Normandy on D-Day. The man he'd convinced to carry his pack that fateful day had been killed as soon as he hit the water.
Finally among their number was Buck Private Bobby Smith, a solid young man with dark hair from Akron, Ohio. Rated as a medic, he also carried a Thompson M1 sub-machinegun and was a very solid youth. He had been the manager of a chain grocery store back home and had been with the 1st Infantry since Normandy.
A British officer was present when Major Taylor met with the men.
"Good morning, men," Major Taylor said to them. "Our British allies have a big operation coming up and it looks like we're going to get a piece of the action. I'd like to introduce Colonel Sir Rodney Fitzhugh from the British XXX Corps HQ. He'll put you in the picture."
"Right!" Colonel Fitzhugh said. "Morning chaps. I suppose you know our Monty has rather run into the thick of things in front of Villet. The whole 2nd Army is going to be held up until we can punch through the Jerry lines there. Monty has a plan that's going to do just that. We should be in Belgium within a week.
He leaned over the table, where a large map of the area lay.
"Now, here's where you chaps come in," he went on. "Our intelligence reports that a Jerry SS Panzer unit is sitting right about ... here ... "
He pointed to the map.
"Jerry Panzer Unit?" Pvt. Polk whispered to Pvt. Carter.
"Tanks, man!" Carter whispered back. "Tanks!"
"... near a village called Bayenne in front of the American sector. And six miles north ... is the only bridge in the area across the River Craelle and that road leads straight to Villet. When Monty jumps off, he can't afford to have those Panzers thundering down on his flank or rear, don't you know.
"Here's where you Yanks come in and pull a small, swift, commando-style raid for us. We can't count on air strikes for this one, because the timing has to be absolutely precise; blow that bridge too early and the Jerries have time to replace it ... and know something's afoot to boot. Blow it too late and Monty has Panzers wandering around behind his lines. But if a small team can go in, mine the bridge and wait for the signal that the attack has begun, ah ... then we've got them: And when Monty punches a salient through up here north of the Craelle, well, these SS blighters are caught like rats in a trap between Monty and the U.S. First Army. Smashing, what? We'll mop them up at our leisure.
"I think that's all I have to say. Major?"
"Thank you, Sir Rodney," Major Taylor said. "Well men, that's the picture. It's a rough assignment, that's why we asked for volunteers. We know we can count on each and every one of you. "Questions?"
"How big's the bridge, sir?" Cpl. Sawyer asked.
Major Taylor handed him a couple of aerial photographs of a double span bridge, one a railroad trestle and the other with a road running across it.
"Steel and stone?" Sawyer asked. "That's a lot of comp B sir."
"That's right," Major Taylor replied. "It's 30 feet above the level of the river. Central pylons are made of stone and it has a stone railing along either side. Train bridge, road bridge; side by side. The underside of the bridge, from what we understand, is crisscrossed, the entire length, with struts and girders. The bridge is 50 yards long, the road span and the rail span are both 12 yards across. The banks of the river are steep here and the river is quite deep with a strong current. There are no fords in either direction for many miles."
"We're not going to carry anything else in the field, sir!" Cpl. Sawyer said.
"You'll be able to carry something else," Major Taylor said. "You'll be fine."
"Do we know how well it's guarded?" Pvt. Polk asked.
"Air recon photos indicate the bridge is not guarded at the present time, not even by sentries," Major Taylor said. "There's a great deal of flak along the river valley from antiaircraft units to the north, but apparently nothing in the immediate area of the bridge. Those units are one of the reasons why air attacks on the bridge are considered too risky."
"Where's the nearest airfield, sir?" Cpl. Sawyer asked. "You think any of those high-flyers would let me borrow one of those 500-pound bombs. That's what it's going to take."
"No," Major Taylor repeated himself. "There are guns in the valley so we can't get any aircraft in."
"I'm not talking about aircraft, sir," Cpl. Sawyer said. "We'll have to lug it. We can't carry enough of comp B to blow that thing."
"You'll figure out something, private!"
"Your team will depart American lines in the vicinity of Chalmy," Major Taylor pointed again to the map. "German lines run north and south along the ridge to the east. You can pick your own route. Bayenne has SS units in it as far as we can tell."
They all looked over the map.
"You'll also be carrying along an S300 radio," Major Taylor went on. "Once you're in position near the bridge, you'll broadcast the word 'Able' three times, transmitting on the hour for three hours in succession. That should be on the evening of the 28th or the 29th. At 0800 on the morning of the 30th, the British attack is scheduled to begin. The bridge must be blown between 0800 and 0830 hours ... not before, not after. In order to coordinate the attack timetable, the codeword 'Mousetrap' will be transmitted from HQ, repeated over and over from 0800 and 0805. Should the attack be delayed, you will not hear the codeword, but you should listen in again at 0900, 1000, and so on. If you do not hear the codeword by 1300, you should consider the mission cancelled and come home.
"Except for the initial 'in position' transmission, strict radio silence must be maintained. The Germans are known to have radio monitoring gear in the area and you cannot risk capture.
"You are also expected to report on enemy activity along the course of your travels. HQ would particularly like details of enemy troop strength, quality, and positions near Bayenne. Reports of north- or south-bound convoys, artillery positions, and the presence of armor in the area are all vital bits of information which HQ needs. Gathering it is secondary to the primary objective. You must not jeopardize your chances of getting to the bridge and blowing it up. After that, you're on your own and sudden attacks south of the Craelle might even help draw German attention away from the British attack to the north.
"If the British attack is called off, you are not to blow the bridge. Other targets of opportunity may be attacked at your squad's discretion.
"There is the possibility that your team will be able to get into position but not transmit 'Able,' nor receive the command 'Mousetrap' because your radio is lost or damaged. If 'Able' is not received by HQ and the attack is on, a reconnaissance aircraft will be sent out shortly before the attack starts. It will drop a red flare over the field south of the bridge to indicate that the attack is on and that the bridge should be blown if possible.
"Upon returning to friendly lines, you should send up two blue flares. You must give the password 'Cowboy' when challenged. The recognition will be 'Roundup.'"
He told them they would leave at 2100 hours and dismissed them.
Cpl. Sawyer figured they would need about 90 pounds of the explosive called composition B. It consisted of a mix of RDX and TNT and was more readily available than other explosives. He also figured he was going to need a good deal of detonator wire.
Looking over the map, they realized that the bridge was some 12 miles past the Merdet River. Pvt. Lafayette wanted to cross the ridge near Chalmy but Cpl. Sawyer pointed out that there were Germans all around Bayenne and the surrounding vicinity. They talked a little of floating down the Craelle but learned it flowed towards the Merdet. They decided to cross the Merdet north of Chalmy near the Craelle River.
They made sure they requisitioned plenty of weaponry, ammunition, and grenades. Sawyer also made sure that everyone was laden with explosives and that Smith had 100 feet of rope. Pvt. Polk would carry the radio. Lafayette talked Smith into carrying his pack. They made sure they had black stocking caps and face black. Cpl. Sawyer ordered them to bring their helmets as well. Lafayette conveniently forgot his.
* * *
They set out at 2100 hours under a waxing half moon and cloudy skies. They reached the river around midnight, crossing to the north side of the Craelle in a rubber boat without incident. They proceeded east along the Craelle with great care.
They soon came across a dirt road that ran along the Craelle and followed it, staying between the road and the river. A few hundred yards down, they spotted a tree that had fallen across the road. They crouched down and conferred, Cpl. Sawyer using the field glasses to examine the area. He didn't see any sign of life near the tree or in the surrounding brush. They marked it on the map and bypassed it. The road soon headed away from the river.
A thick forest soon appeared on the opposite side of the Craelle. Before they proceeded, Cpl. Sawyer broke out the field glasses once again and examined the woods carefully, but again saw no sign of the enemy. They continued along the river, the dark forest thick on the other side of the river.
Sometime later, around 0430, the land started to drop slightly. They soon heard two men speaking in German somewhere ahead. The squad stopped, fanned out, and hunkered down. They could hear two voices somewhere ahead and sometimes the sound of something small hitting the water. No one in the squad spoke German, though Lafayette spoke French fluently.
Cpl. Sawyer signaled to Pvt. Lafayette, and the latter crept to the man. He ordered him to move up and see what he could with the scope of his rifle. Pvt. Lafayette nodded and crawled down the slope towards the river. Through a break in the trees, he spotted two men who appeared to be in uniform. He watched them for some minutes. They were simply talking and throwing rocks into the water.
He signaled back to the corporal that there two of the enemy were near the river. Then he crept back. The squad moved further from the river and skirted around the two men, marking their position as best they could on the map.
They soon came to a place where a small creek crossed the river. Cpl. Sawyer looked over the area but realized they were starting to get some light in the east and were not near the woods where they wanted to be. He ordered Pvt. Lafayette to cross the river while the rest of the men covered him. Lafayette made a crouched run to the creek and found it was only about two feet deep, quickly crossing it and dropping prone in the tall grass on the other side.
Pvt. Polk, meanwhile, had sat down and taken off his boots and his socks. He tied his boots around his neck. Cpl. Sawyer just shook his head before they all crossed the creek, one at a time at speed, those not crossing covering those who were.