We're not lost, Sergeant, We're in … France


What really happened?

In my research on Edson Raff, I read about an incident that puzzled me, even in it’s basic form. Then, I started to find other versions of the same event and realized that not everyone saw the same thing in the same way. This is one of the joys of being a historian – having the opportunity to piece multiple accounts together to determine what is most likely to have actually happened.

On the 6th of June, Raff landed with his command on Utah Beach, raced forward in an attempt to reinforce the 82nd Airborne with a small armored force. They were able to roll out from the beach, with the roads already having been cleared (not necessarily “secured”), reach the crossroads at Les Forges and look north toward Ste-Mere-Eglise, where part of the 82nd Airborne was supposed to be gathering. I’d first picked this up in Clay Blair’s Ridgway’s Paratroopers, in which Blair relates that Raff’s force was held up…

The Germans who had fled Ste. Mere-Eglise and holed up in the woods to the south of town opened fire with 88s which had been zeroed in on the road. These accurate salvoes hit and destroyed an armored reconnaissance vehicle and three Sherman tanks and inflicted numerous casualties.

I’ve been to Les Forges twice now and it doesn’t seem like that deadly an area at first glance. Route Nationale 13 (N13), which was then a nice little road, is now a highway and it slopes gently down and back up as you approach Ste. Mere-Eglise from the south. It reminds me in that sense of Route 30 in Pennsylvania, as you drive east from Chambersburg to Gettysburg. In both cases, the approach is from a slight rise, with a gentle slope down and back up again. John Buford recognized the value of such ground from the defensive side, deploying his cavalry and cannon to slow the Confederate advance on the first day, west of Gettysburg. The men of the 795th Ost Battalion (Georgian) were posted on Hill 20, south of Ste. Mere-Eglise and for an anti-tank gunner, it is lovely ground.

Being curious about the incident, I searched for more information. I checked Blair’s sources and found two that looked promising, SLA Marshall’s Night Drop and Ralph Ingersoll’s Top Secret.

Marshall is the grand historian of the American airborne and I couldn’t believe that I’d never thought to buy his book. During World War II, Marshall was assigned to the European Theater and, it seems, was assigned the airborne aspect of the Normandy operation as a historian because everyone else was too busy. He was an early proponent of oral history, but his favored technique seems to have been interviewing entire companies at once. He relates in the epilogue to Night Drop that his interviews ended up being battalion-wide and, in the case of the La Fiere causeway fight, two battalions sitting for the interview at once. Marshall was Colonel Marshall at the time and I’ve read that junior officers, like Lieutenant Dick Winters, were generally a little intimidated by him. One can just imagine being interviewed by the Colonel in front of one’s own superior officers, with as much as two battalions of men listening in. While you might get a story that the senior officers could agree upon, it might not be what actually happened.

Though both men had been writers before the war, Ralph Ingersoll was a far different animal. While Marshall comes off as a solid “company man”, Ingersoll strikes me as a maverick. While Marshall worked as a war reporter for the Detroit News, Ingersoll published the leftist daily newspaper, PM, in New York City, which accepted no advertising whatsoever. Somehow, Ingersoll ended up a Major by the time of the Normandy invasion and get himself assigned as the Executive Officer of Raff’s force. After the war, Ingersoll wrote of his adventures in a series of books, with Top Secret including his time in Normandy.

Both men seem to sometimes embellish things for a good story and other times to simply get it wrong. Nonetheless, I mention them because of the drastic contrast in their reporting of the encounter of the Raff force with the Germans (well, Georgians in German uniforms) at Les Forges.

First, let’s look at Ingersoll’s account. Raff decides to send a scout car from Les Forges toward Hill 20….

Raff beckoned him up and said, “Go down and see what you can see.” The lieutenant got in the lead scout and it crept down over the brow of the hill. The tank engines were all silent and the rubber tires of the scout car whispered on the asphalt. It went down the far slope a little and halted to look around. Raff beckoned the sergeant of the nearest or our tank crews. “Go on down after him and cover him,” he said. The tankers climbed in and started their engine. The big hunk of steel lumbered up over the brow of the hill. Then it came close to the scout car and the latter began moving again and the two vehicles dropped down into the valley. In profile, the road made a very flat “U” through the valley. When the two vehicles reached the bottom of the “U”, there were two explosions in quick succession. Standing on the brow of the hill we could see the men piling out of the tank and out of the scout car and diving into the ditch on the right. Then everything was very still. And neither vehicle made a move or sound and nothing whatever happened.

What occurred next was a comedy turned tragic. The scout car and the tank which we had sent out ahead had been fire on all right, but neither had been hit and the crash we had heard happened when the scout car backed up suddenly and rammed its own tank. Both crews thought their vehicles had been struck by enemy fire and had piled out into the ditch. The first survivor was a terrified GI from the tank who had crawled all the way up the hill in the gutter. He reported that he was the sole survivor. Ten minutes later the lieutenant from the scout car came in, having circled through the fields. Sheepishly he explained what had really happened.

Ingersoll continues, describing further action that does involve tanks actually being hit, but the stark difference between Blair’s interpretation and Ingersoll’s first-hand account is shocking. So, of course, when I got my copy of Marshall’s book, that was the first thing I looked for. Marshall’s contemporary interpretation differs slightly.

Raff said to the lieutenant leading the reconnaissance platoon, “Take your scout car up the road and see what you can see.” Then he beckoned to the sergeant of his nearest tank and said, “Go on along and cover him.” The two vehicles advanced about 300 yards along the twisting highway. then Raff heard two explosions close together and saw the tank pile up on the scout car. A few minutes later the lieutenant returned afoot. He explained that one shell had hit his car dead on and, failing to explode, had driven it back into the tank with such violence that the track had been stripped away.

Since Marshall not only has a far different result of the German fire, but also uses slightly different quotes for Raff’s words to the lieutenant and the sergeant, I assumed he had other sources for his story. I was so excited because I thought I had found an account that SLA Marshall hadn’t included in his book. I remained that excited from June to August, continuing to search for more information and thinking I’d made a grand discovery. Then, I met Kevin Hymel, who has written an article about Raff in Normandy and I related the difference between the two accounts. He told me that he believed Marshall got it right, but I wasn’t convinced.

Then, I started to write this post and in the months it has taken me to write it… everything unravelled. Marshall quotes from Ingersoll’s book directly two pages later when describing the glider landings a few hours later. So, Marshall obviously read Ingersoll’s book and could have repeated his account. In Joe Balkoski’s Utah Beach, he doesn’t mention the incident, but he does quote from Ingersoll’s book as well. So, both of them read and disregarded Ingersoll’s account. The torture for me is that I don’t know if Marshall had access to other information (interviews with other men who were there or the after-action report from the tank company) because he doesn’t use footnotes, endnotes or even a bibliography. Balkoski does quote from the AAR of Company C, 746th Tank Battalion about the entire action, so I do know where I can look next. In all likelihood, I’ll never know exactly what happened, but it sure is interesting trying to figure it out….

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