Photo of Frank P. Downing
by Frank P. Downing
On the 14th of January our battalion received orders that on the following day it was to undertake an attack on the small German town of Nennig, located near the Moselle river. This would be part of a coordinated attack with the other battalions of the regiment, hitting adjacent towns in an attempt to drive the Germans out of the Switch area. This was part of orders from 3rd Army headquarters that all elements of the army must take offensive actions to maintain pressure on the Germans as they withdraw from the Ardennes.
The battalion would be supported by an engineering company since it would be necessary to pass through mine fields. There would also be support from D's (tank destroyers) and 81 mm mortars as well as divisional artillery. Our company, K company, would be in the lead, and was directed to attack and hold the town of Nennig while I company would take the nearby town of Weiss and L company was to protect the battalion from a flank attack.
So late on the 14th we formed up, got extra K rations, grenades and Ml ammo in the form of bandoleers and moved off to the outskirts of the village of Besch along the river. It was dark when we got there. We were billeted in a small house. All I remember is that it was completely dark, and all the windows had been broken so it was just as cold inside as it was outside. At least we were not sleeping in the snow.
We were woken up about 3 AM and formed a chow line for a hot breakfast that had been brought up. It was bitterly cold that time of the morning, and it was very dark with the only light coming from the slits of the headlights of the jeep.
Our conversation was subdued as this would be our first assault on a heavily defended town, and we were unsure how it would turn out.
As we formed up to move out, we could see flashes on the skyline as the artillery shells exploded. From this we could tell that the other battalion of the regiment had started its attack. The noise of the exploding shells was loud, and the sky kept brightening from them. Somehow it did not put one's mind at ease.
Our platoon formed a column and we set off through the snow near the banks of the Moselle river. The plan was for the 3rd platoon to follow the first and second platoons as they went through the town by-passing any resistance and securing the perimeter. Our job would be to overcome any pockets of the enemy that had been bypassed.
The engineers had cleared a passage through the minefield along the river, and we followed the tape indicating the safe path. Everyone was very quiet as we moved along for about an hour. Finally, we came to a railroad embankment, and just at dawn we laid down in rows in the snow and waited for the artillery barrage to begin. Soon it became light, and we could see where the shells were falling on the buildings at the edge of the town.
The barrage lasted some twenty minutes, and as it ceased the officers blew their whistles and the lines of infantry rose from the snow and we began to run across the open fields through the chemical smoke that had been laid down towards the building at the edge of the town. The attack had begun.
At that time we had not started to use "marching fire" to keep the enemy pinned down so there was little shooting. There appeared to be little firing from the German side either. The big problem in such a case was that you never knew whether there was no one there or they were waiting until you got close before they opened up. All I remember is running through the snow with the rest of my squad following the first platoon in front of us. Then somehow we were separated and alone. We appeared to be at a small train station.
Two of us were in the lead and so we started towards the station. We still thought that the first platoon was somewhere in front of us. Our platoon leader was with us so we felt we had to be in the right area. Our first problem came when we reached a high wall and, hearing Germans on the other side, decided to throw a grenade over. My buddy heaved one but it hit the top of the wall and rolled back on us. We dived yelling a warning to those behind us and it exploded harmlessly. No one was hurt, but I could see it had all the makings of a bad day.
As we started to fan out into the buildings next to the train station, the Germans opened fire. Their main fire came from a machine gun in a house somewhere to the left in front of us. With the first few bursts one of my squad was killed and a second wounded. Our lieutenant told us to, "Go get 'em." I wish he had said "Follow me," but he didn't, so I started to move to the next house over in order to flank their position. To do so, I started to crawl along the side of the railroad tracks next to a picket fence. The reason I was crawling was that I was in the line of fire for that German machine gun and I could hear the bullets clip the picket fence above my head. Fortunately he could not depress his weapon far enough to get me.
I reached the house, but I still could not see where the machine gun fire was coming from, nor any other German positions. I later found out that our BAR man had gotten the machine gun with a burst. The rest of the Germans seem to have cleared out of that part of the town. So things quieted down for a bit and we were told to stay where we were.
We did have another casualty. Robert from the French Resistance, who had joined our squad in Brittany, was shot and badly wounded by a sniper.
Later we received word that we were to withdraw as we had indeed followed the lead platoon, but into the wrong town. In the early morning fog they had veered to the left and had entered the adjacent town of Weiss. We of course had followed. That platoon had suffered a lot of casualties as they had encountered stiff resistance. Our squad had not done too well either, with one dead and two wounded.
As the medics came to evacuate our wounded we were guided back to our original objective, Nennig. So much for the confusion of war.
A further word about Robert (pronounced "Robear"), our Frenchman. As I have mentioned earlier, the FFI or French Resistance, participated with our forces in the holding of the St.Nazaire pocket.
While we were in Brittany, some of their men applied directly to our Regiment to fight with our forces. A number were accepted and were assigned to various units. They were not in the U.S.Army and did not get paid but they did get uniforms and weapons.
That is how in early November we got "Robear". He had been assigned to our squad. He could speak a little English, and with the aid of some high school French we made out OK. He was young, husky, very willing and made a good soldier.
When we were to move to Germany, he volunteered to go with us, which was a brave move on his part. If he were captured, he would not have been treated as a POW by the Germans but. would have been shot.
So there he was, lying in the snow beside the train station with what looked like a bad belly wound. I told him he was hurt bad and asked him if he wanted to pray, because I knew he was Catholic. He said he did, so he and I said the Act of Contrition together in French. The medics came up and carried him back. I heard later that he survived the wound, which of course was great.
The article you just read is a short segment of a true story written by Frank P. Downing prior to his death.
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