Rating: •• (Mildly Recommended)
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Paul Fussell delivers an unsentimental, raw, and vivid picture of the horror of war in his new book, The Boys’ Crusade. Presenting what he considers the “unvarnished truth,” this historian presents a dozen vignettes of what young Americans like himself experienced when they arrived, with little training, into battle in the closing months of World War II. Here’s an excerpt of the chapter titled “An Episode Called Cobra,” (pp. 45-52):
The month of July 1944 was profoundly
discouraging for the Allies. After more than a month, their ground troops had
not broken through the heavy crust confining them to little more than a
The main problem was the landscape of the Bocage country of
Someone finally did. Tanker sergeant Curtis G. Culin Jr. saw what was needed. He welded a large steel forklike thing to the front of a tank. This could be run into a hedgerow and toss up enough dirt to clear a passage, severely disheartening the enemy and clearing the way— until the next hedgerow, when the same performance would e repeated. This whole experience of the long holdup by the hedgerows illustrates that the Germans were as good at defense as the Americans were not. American strengths were in attack: airpower and rapid forward movement, and both were now called on for the ultimate breakout.
The immensity of the problem of breaking through
the German defense can be appreciated by the immensity of the solution
finally settled upon. It was as if the staff were
guided by the aphorism of Oscar Wilde: “Nothing succeeds like excess.”
General Omar Bradley, who had authority to call upon the air corps in his
area, decided to use fighter-bombers and heavy B-17 strategic bombers,
usually used to destroy cities and the people within them, to open the way
for a massive ground breakthrough. The German positions ran close to a road
connecting the town of
For safety the troops secretly withdrew a considerable distance from the front and the air corps understood that the planes would fly parallel with the road so they could keep on course by guiding along it. They also could avoid bombing the infantry by heeding cloth strips delineating the sides of the road and watching for pots of colored smoke marking the corners of the rectangle constituting the target.
The operation, denominated COBRA, was originally set for July 24, but heavy overcast forced cancellation—but not until many bombers, not hearing or not understanding the radio signal to abort, dropped their bombs and killed twenty-five infantrymen of the 30th Division who were preparing to jump off when the whistle blew. The pilots of the bombers, alas, had followed not a parallel but a perpendicular approach to the crucial road, violating, Bradley held, a firm agreement to fly along the road, not across it. That course would give the pilots a longer view of the target and a cleaner warning if they should not be over it. Bradley was furious at what he regarded as an unauthorized change in the aviators’ tactics. But bombing from either approach would have been approximately as disastrous, because the smoke and dust of the bombs blotted out all land features, and the normally benign and unsuspected breeze moved the dust line over the American troops.
The next day, with command sensitivities of both air and ground forces in shock but with apologies and hopes to do better next time, the operation was tried again. Again, catastrophe, and even worse than the first time: 1,800 B- 17s and 550 fighter-bombers, assisted by fire from 1,000 artillery pieces, killed ill U.S. infantry and wounded almost 500. Friendly fire, with a vengeance.
Lieutenant Murray Pulver, of the 30th Division, was there with his men, ready to attack. But, as he says,
I looked up to see that a wave of bombers had released too soon. My God, those bombs were going to hit us! We dove into our shallow slit trench. I started to pray... . I knew that we were all going to die. I began reciting the Twenty-third Psalm: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” . . . It came so clearly to me, as if I were reading from the Good Book. The earth trembled and shook.
Correspondent Ernie Pyle was there and he had a wider view of the disaster:
There was still an hour before the bombers. . . . There was nothing for the infantry to do but dig a little deeper and wait.
The first planes of the mass onslaught came over a little before 10 AM. . . . The main road running crosswise in front of us was their bomb line. They were to bomb only on the far side of that road.
Our kickoff infantry had been pulled back a few hundred yards this side of the road. Everyone in the area had been given the strictest orders to be in foxholes, for high-level bombers can, and do quite excusably, make mistakes.
We were still in country so level and with hedgerows SO tall there was simply no high spot—either hill or building— where you could get a grandstand view of the bombing....
Having been caught too close to these things before, I picked a farmyard about 800 yards back of the kickoff line.
And before the next two hours had passed, I would have given every penny, every desire, every hope I’ve ever had to have been just another 800 yards further back.
On time, dive bombers hit [the long rectangular target area] just right.
And then a new sound gradually droned into our ears. It was the heavies. .. . They came in a constant procession and I thought it would never end. What the Germans must have thought is beyond comprehension.
I stood with a little group of men, ranging from colonels to privates, back of [a] stone farmhouse. Slit trenches were all around the edges of the farmyard and a dugout with a tin roof was nearby. But we were so fascinated by the spectacle overhead that it never occurred to us that we might need the foxholes.
And then the bombs came. They began ahead of us as the crackle of popcorn almost instantly swelled into a monstrous fury of noise that seemed surely to destroy all the world ahead of us.
From then on for an hour and a half that had in it the agony of centuries, the bombs came down. A wall of smoke and dust erected by them grew high in the sky. It filtered along the ground back through our own orchards. It sifted around us and into our noses. The bright day grew slowly dark from it. Some of the bombers were hit by German anti-aircraft fire and a few parachutes were seen. But nothing of that sort affected the bombers at all.
Then we were horrified by the suspicion that those machines, high in the sky and completely detached from us, were aiming their bombs at the smokeline on the ground—and a gentle breeze was drifting the smokeline back over us!
We dived. Some got in a dugout. Others made foxholes and ditches.
I was too late for the dugout. The nearest place was a wagon-shed.. . . I remember hitting the ground flat... and then squirming like an eel to get under one of the heavy wagons in the shed.
There is no description of the sound and fury of those bombs except to say it was chaos, and a waiting for darkness. The feeling of the blast was sensational. The air struck you in hundreds of continuing flutters. Your ears drummed and rang. You could feel quick little waves of concussions on your chest and in your eyes.
The bombing finally over, Pyle turned to the state of the bombed American troops; and as was his wartime journalistic habit, he found grounds for good news:
The leading company of our battalion was to spearhead the attack 40 minutes after our heavy bombing ceased. The company had been hit directly by our bombs. Their casualties, including casualties in shock, were heavy. Men went to pieces and had to be sent back. The company was shattered and shaken.
And yet Company B attacked,… and within an hour they sent word back that they had advanced 800 yards through German territory and were still going.
Pyle concludes his story in characteristic style: “The American soldier can be majestic when he needs to be.”
Censorship prevented Pyle from going into matters known to some of the officers present, like the appalling fact recorded by honest Russell Weigley, that many of the boys mangled or blown to bits were green replacements, “some . . . only several days out of Camp Walters, 21 weeks in the army from the time of their induction.”
And a classic bit of disingenuousness was practiced by the Associated Press and Wide World Photos. It attached this caption to a battle picture depicting GIs frantically digging out their buddies from ruined foxholes: ‘~After German shelling, Yanks dig out men buried in their foxholes.”
Among the high-ranking officers who had assembled
to view the bombing operation was Lieutenant General Lesley J. McNair, who
had come over from
For years, General McNair had been specializing
in training the new divisions that in due course would storm into
After the bombing had finally stopped, he couldn’t be located. Hours later, an extended search found his mangled remains blown sixty yards from his foxhole. The body was identified by a piece of his collar bearing three stars.
And what was the effect on the enemy of this novel way of attacking? The Panzer Lehr Division, for one, was very badly beaten up. Trees were uprooted, rifle and machine-gun positions buried, tanks overturned. Some roads, including many required by the American attackers, simply disappeared. Craters were everywhere, some thirty feet across. Historian Martin Blumenson estimates that around one thousand German troops were killed by the bombing, and—this estimate might surprise infantry survivors— “only local and feeble resistance was possible against attacking American infantrymen.”
During the bombing, some German troops, literally driven insane, blew out their brains rather than remain in the noise, the dame, the smoke, the screams, the shaking earth, the flying bodies and parts of bodies. Ordered from on high to “Hold in position,” General Fritz Bayerlein replied, “My grenadiers and the pioneers, my anti-tank gunners, they’re holding. None of them have left their positions, none. They’re lying in their holes, still and mute, because they are dead. Dead. Do you understand?” A bit later he reported, “After an hour I had no communication with anybody, even by radio. By noon nothing was visible but dust and smoke. My front lines looked like the face of the moon and at least 70 percent of my troops were out of action—dead, wounded, crazed, or numb.” The Amen cans, for all they had suffered on their side, got the best of the bargain, for they did not become victims of a fierce ground attack while contemplating and cleaning up the sad mess left by the bombs. Two days later General Law-ton Collins attacked with six divisions, two of them armored, and made rapid progress, penetrating the enemy rear so deeply that his soldiers killed a division commander, normally operating safely in the rear.
The COBRA disaster produced one other good
effect: knowledge gained from the experience of using bombers to support
ground troops. If the attacking army had enjoyed absolute, God-like control
over weather, wind distance and direction, and general visibility, the
fantastic operation might have come off as planned. But as the air corps’
abandoning attempts at the “precision” bombing of
Exposed as a result of the COBRA fiasco were the false promises of strategic aerial support of ground armies. The fantasy of smooth, rational victories at little cost was now a nightmare, and the infantry realized that the only way to win the war was to fight on and on and, if lucky, survive the inevitable wounds.
Tourists prowling around the COBRA area should not waste time looking for a memorial to the boys killed by the bombing error.
Readers who were not pacifists at the beginning of The Boys’ Crusade will find themselves haunted with the horror of war by the end.
Steve Hopkins, February 23, 2004
ã 2004 Hopkins and Company, LLC
The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the March 2004 issue of Executive Times
URL for this review: http://www.hopkinsandcompany.com/Books/The Boys Crusade.htm
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