Veteran Accounts - Guido Gnilsen
Gefreiter Guido Gnilsen
Orders came unexpectedly this morning. Just as we were back training in the new map grid location R44, which we had already begun in Caumont, the order to march back towards St. Lo came through. This time we were urgently needed, and because of this need in the bright night sky, we would risk being attacked by fighter-bombers on the way. Fortunately for us, the trip went well.
At the first stop we regrouped in an orchard, where we found beautiful cherries still hanging on the tree. Within moments I had climbed up a tree and plucked the over-ripe fruit and stuffed my belly full. Below me were Karl, Hans, and Werner who ate what fell from my pickings.
As Rudi Zehelein came along, he knew very well what we had found but still asked, “Is that a cherry tree?” “Well,” replied Werner calmly, “It’s an apple tree!” while popping a juicy cherry in his mouth. After this little incident, we drove on, often making short stops to quickly hide from roving fighter-bombers.
One time we thought that the fighter-bombers had us. We just got out of a village on a sloping street, where twelve of the beasts pounced on us. We jumped out of the vehicle into a trench, and as soon as the fighter-bombers swooped past, we go back into the SPW and raced to the next piece of cover.
Whether they had noticed us before they turned or not, we were still receiving fire. We did not know where to go! Just before we go down drove into a ditch, we received direct infantry fire. This fire caused Altstadt, who was in his KFZ 17, to be wounded in his arm. We were able to seek shelter on an embankment beyond which the chirping and whistling of bullets could not harm us. In addition, there were enough holes built into the hillside where a shooter could lay down and fire upon the enemy. First we had to wait and deal with this new situation. We head a gun firing which must have been quite close. The rounds hammer constantly on the road and whip our nerves. From nearby a cry rises up, “It burns, it burns!” I look around and to my relief see a Sherman that had approached within approximately 150 meters of us, with flames rising from the turret.
What a threatening situation we had found ourselves in! If we would have moved a few seconds earlier, he would have seen us, and trained his gun on our SPW. At this distance he would have been able to shoot us just like in target practice. Instead, one of our tanks gave him a quick end. With this, the shooting had stopped and nighttime finally gave us an opportunity to relax.
After never wracking radio communications with the other companies, Karl and Werner finally were able to get some well-deserved rest. In the dim light I sat alone and pensive in front of the SPW. From outside came the blazing firelight of the burning tank. The crackling and bursting of the exploding ammunition mixed with the monotonous sound from my headphones.
Suddenly a deafening crash rips and breaks the silence of the night. I throw myself on the floor. Flashes of stars flicker before my eyes and in one bound I jump out of the SPW and into a foxhole. Sitting in cover, the shock still trembled through my limbs. What had happened?
After a moment, I hear the hum of engines around me. Friendly night fighters had attacked our position. Thankfully their bomb missed the mark despite the recognition signals we had laid out. I wondered, “There is still a Luftwaffe?” I got out of my cover and noted some new cracks in the deck of the SPW that I could see the night sky though. I found my mess tin resting on the floor, and noticed that my cookware had gotten a new hole in it.
Slowly the hours trickled away. After what seemed like an eternity the first early morning mist lowered over the valley. This would be the preparation before the storm. We withdrew about a kilometer further back to regroup before moving forward to assault waves of enemy tanks. We stormed Moyon and wrested it from the enemy in fierce street fighting.
But what is the use of the heroic struggle of our grenadiers, enduring the angry fire I wonder. When suddenly we hear, “Fire, FIRE!” Enemy guns have broken through to the left and right. Howling towards us, shells burst in the treetops of the orchard, where our vehicles received new damage.
Some rounds hit Hoydn so hard that he later succumbed to his injuries. The roof of the KFZ 17 was destroyed, but thankfully its crew had already sought shelter. Unfortunately other irreparable losses had occurred; Corporal Brachvogel had fallen by artillery shrapnel and Pleines Feldermann had been accident with his vehicle and had to be taken to the hospital. Horrified, one wonders, “When will my time be up?”
In the evening, attack aircraft return. Even though we meet it with wild busts of fire it is already zooming at us with breakneck speed. With mind-boggling quickness, we throw ourselves on the floor of a small house before the ground around us explodes from the dropping bombs. “Thanks be to God,” I pray!
At midnight our battalion moves unnoticed from the clutches of the enemy. Silent and eerily illuminated by moonlight the tired groups fall back. Only a few are still alive up front front and sacrifice themselves to cover the retreat of their comrades.
A wide strip of no man's land exists between us and the enemy in the morning due to a well fought delaying action at night. Then the first Sherman emerges on the opposite height, but quickly encounters our new front. Some kills are reported, but the enemy then pushes with his superior armed forces against us which drives us back.
We are half way up on the edge of a cornfield pursued by the enemy. A wide tree row has freed the combatants from the valley from the hard charging enemy. As we go back just to the crest of the height we were attacked by heavy artillery fire. All around us the dirt whipped up and almost blinded us from the dust of the road, the hand of the commander was not visible even to our ever-steady Hans. We race beyond down.
In his unprotected KFZ 17 Sawinsky is wounded. With that, the radio squad falls out. Ochse and Ruppert take the car back for repair with the baggage trains. In His place a radio-SPW from the regiment is made available to us. It is now is our constant companion.
We were able to get one days rest, detached from the enemy. We were then needed to assist with the difficult attack against Tessy with our sister regiment 304. We only attacked throughout the course of one day. Here and there are muffled explosions, and a new retreat is prepared. Unstoppable in constant fighting the enemy pushes the front back.
Tessy fell after fierce fighting on 1 August 1944 and the 2nd Panzer Division now occupies the line from Aunay - Villedieu - Pontfarcy.
At the west coast of the peninsula, Carantan was far occupied by the Americans and threatens the entire Normandy region. A last desperate step is dared by the top Army leaders to rescue the grave situation.
Attacks against Avranches
From the 6th to 11th of August, 1944
Near Sourdeval the 2nd Panzergrenadier Regiment draws together. We are waiting in a country house from the road fork, and dig like moles underneath our SPW as foxholes, because the situation seems to be dangerous. The American artillery had zeroed in on us and the next day there is already a huge mess. The second salvo crashed into a house and wounded Captain Monschau, the head of the fifth Company. Strauss, Sergeant Mayerhöfer, a runner as well as a telephone exchange were also wounded.
A captain of the infantry, immediately took the lead of the Second Battalion. He was level-headed and kind to us which benefited us in the coming hours. Unfortunately he had little experience as an infantryman in motorized use and the application of their tactics, which caused issues with the associated radio communications.
Only now, after the losses had occurred, it was decided to run away from this uncomfortable area and find a safe place to stay at regimental headquarters, which was hidden in a nearby forest. However, during the lightning fast position change, which had to take place in great weather, enemy fighter bombers tore our SPWs open along the main street. During this time, I had only one petition to God, “Please, no fighter-bombers.”
It had seemed really stupid to cover the entire vehicle with bushes. But anyway, as they swooped down, they were fooled and flew over us. Hans and Werner worked despite the huge risk of being discovered, and with the skill and experience they mastered the situation.The great decisive battle was unfolding. It drew new hope for all of us that there could be a turnaround turn after all the days of constant retreat.
Once again, should we forced the last advancing enemy to be stopped by a violent break-through on both sides of Mortain towards the sea at Avranches. If their attack failed, the enemy would be cut off south of the Panzer Army, along the connecting road.At this crucial time to counter attack came on Monday morning, the 6th August 1944. As our armored infantry and tanks of the 2nd Panzer Division with the steel colossi of the Waffen-SS and the Großdeutschland overran without any artillery support, the first positions of the enemy. Quickly we were advancing in its hinterland. WeE had the opportunity to stay in constant contact with the companies, to track their progress and looked forward to each of their successes.
Soon the first prisoners arrived and messages piled up around us. Soon there were 300 prisoners and over our radio there were the brown shapes of Americans constantly marching to the rear. Curious, I looked at them and read in their faces the traces of recovering from the fight.
Comrade Henkel, a radio operator of the 8th Company came over to us. He was decorated with captured guns and machine guns. His pockets were full of cigarettes and chocolate and by his own hand he had captured eleven Americans. It gave him pleasure that they dug in Wild West style out of their holes. He said he wanted to bring a total 20 prisoners in by the end of the day. We doubted his ability to do this.
At noon, the bloody drama of struggle reached its peak. The battle was to be decided from the air. On the ground, our Panthers and grenadiers struggle for the possession of St. Barthelemy. They were stopped by a minefield, and some tanks were lost.
The low-flying bombers, the fighters, and the fighter-bombers approach we can hear their drone. Anything that the Allies can muster are being sent to our sector. Thus begins the most terrible spectacle that I have ever experienced in this war:
Converging machines, the howl of the armor-piercing rockets and bullets with their devastating impact, detonating bombs, and the frantic noise of the fire-spitting machine guns surround me.
All of this fire is focused on the fighting troops on the ground. Our armored giants are shattered the nerves of the grenadiers are frayed. There was no one who could help them. With tears of rage I had to watch this spectacle take place.
Well into afternoon, the enemy hadn’t even started to use their artillery. Even though it was in a position to attack. It was only now that it started to drum. This was a terrible end for what started out to be so successful for us. Our second Panzer Division had pushed the furthest west, but the vast offensive battle had been beaten bloody alone from the air. This was new proof that he who owns the air, owns the battlefield.
But still we must defend the newly conquered section of terrain. The enemy wants to win it back by any means. All night long the battle rages along the new lines. Fires and streaks of light illuminate with magical light the gloomy ravine where we stood with the radio station. Hour after hour trickles by while we huddled in the meager holes covered with brushwood. We wait with every small vibration shaking our sweat-soaked body. No one knows what is going on in front of him, the new commander has apparently forgotten us.
Suddenly the grenadiers come running back without leadership, some even without any equipment and they can only respond to our questions with, “The Ami is coming!” The situation starts to get serious. For our own safety, the squadron leader sends Hans and I up to the nearest outpost. I took up position at the embankment and I stare alone with my rifle to the front, where our tanks are still standing. Enemy bombers had crashed like wasps out of the blue and now there was only one left, as the second set on fire. In an impotent rage I fired at an approaching fighter-bomber, who just pulled up from the frenzied dive just above the treetops. I of course did not hit him, and with that, I had fired my only shot of the war.
As fast as they had come, they disappeared. With that, there is a second scary approach. A tremendous roar and a few hundred meters in front of me huge fountains of earth were thrown up. Shall I sit still, almost undetected, or quickly run to the next house? Within moments I had decided on the latter, and already the next approach of the airplanes roar. The windows rattle under the strike and I hide in the safest location under a table. I was again lucky. Barely three meters away from the old location was the ground churned up by the heavy shrapnel.
The critical situation is resolved by the intervention of the captain's order to retreat. The rest happens at night; the food seems like it takes forever, even though it has to cross the path of fire from the Americans. From the nearby main road muffled engine noise of vehicles and the sound of tank tracks waft over to our positions. The front pushes back in our direction and re-connects with us.
In a stream bed, near a mill, we remain until the early morning hours. Then we move up a hill and are covered under the shady trees. In a narrow pass we had dug beautiful foxholes covered with canvas but after a few hours of sleep in we again had to counter attack back into the valley and wait, mostly crouching in foxholes, instead of the better protection behind the SPW. We wanted to dig into the steep slope and cover our positions with planks during the night, however we had to move back a few miles to a new location.
At the new location, we were camouflaged as well as an owl. The only event of the day happened at first light. A squadron of American transport planes suddenly appeared flying low behind a hill and immediately we were able to see the hatches opening and the bombs falling. I was concerned at first but since colorful mushrooms were made of yellow, blue, and red parachutes I thought, “'Man! Paratroopers!” We put our carbines down, as soon as we realized that the supply parachutes would not hurt us.
On the fifth day of the offensive, we got back to our starting point and the bag that we had driven into the sea deflated. No one guessed correctly, but the front was back to the original location. It was not only hot, but our division is pulled out and we were looking forward to the coming quiet days.
At night the whole column was scheduled to retreat. The movement was completed on the 13th of August. We started the day before as pleasant as possible. Hans and Werner got some food with the help of some stable hands. However, that was not to be as events were about to prove.
To be continued.