Sandy St Clair and the Disappearing Hun
Sergeant Donald McKie turned left into the small orchard. As Corporal Stone’s section silently moved past him he tried to peer through the trees towards a small copse of a nearby knoll. They must be here. Somewhere. He knew they would be coming, and coming soon.
Mister St Clair had enraged the Colonel by pulling back further than he should, but the men had not been in a fit state to resist. It was unfortunate, but the time bought had allowed the platoon to get themselves organised. So, the Germans had reoccupied their outpost positions, and Sergeant McKie knew that they would not stop there.
Corporal Stone waved his Bren team forward. As the rifle team moved up he indicated the area he wanted them to cover. Then, as his riflemen slipped across the stone wall the Bren began putting fire down into the small copse. It Jerry was there they’d at least put him off his aim.
Ulrich Lehrmann watched across the valley as the brown figures moves through the orchard in a fluid movement. So. The Tommies were not running any longer. Beside him Hansie Stich’s figure tightened slightly on the trigger of his MG42 as he waited for the word. The word that must come at any moment.
The tearing of linoleum they likened it to, and as soon as it began Corporal Stone and his riflemen dived for cover behind the low orchard wall. Stone chippings were thrown around them, and above their heads the bullets whipped the boughs of the apple trees. Stone could taste the leaf mould in his mouth as he pressed himself with ever more intensity into the ground, as though it would hold and protect him.
Sergeant McKie ran forward with the Bren team. The German machine gunner couldn’t see the right hand corner of the orchard and there the Glaswegian waved forward the LMG and shouted back for smoke. With some precision the first smoke round fell to the side of the copse, spoiling the view of the orchard and providing some relief to Corporal Stone and his men.
Corporal Joe Capstan’s section had been moving up through the orchard when the firing began. With some prescience he changed his route and slipped out into the field, advancing up the hedgeline towards the wooded knoll. The small copse actually lay on the other side of the hillock, and if he could work his way up the hedge he could slip into the wood and take the position which an earlier patrol had reported as being occupied by the German. From the higher ground to his rear the 2” mortar team provided small but effective smoke screen off to his right. Shame, he thought. His left would have been better. If there are Jerries in that wood then that is where they’d be firing from.
Michael Koenig swore. He had expected the British to come through the orchard and taken up positions to block their advance. The movement along the hedge was in danger of outflanking his position. He crawled forward with his MG team. If he left it any longer the target would be gone. “Feur!”.
It wasn’t a perfect shot, he had been rushed and most of his riflemen could not even see the British section on the hedge, but he had to do something. He saw at least one khaki clad man fall, but then from the orchard on his right the British opened fire. “Scheisse!” Now from the hedge the British also replied. Caught in a crossfire Koenig called his riflemen forward and returned fire.
In the orchard Sergeant McKie moved along the wall. The MG42 at close quarters was a bastard to deal with. Men naturally flinched at the sheer volume of fire, but the Sergeant kept them in the line. Listening out for a break in the tempo of German fire, McKie would raise himself and fire a burst with his Sten. How much damage he did was questionable, it was at the limit of the shoddy little weapon’s accuracy, but the rattle of the weapon seemed to give life to his men who knew he was among them. He was one of the youngest men in the platoon, but the unremarkable little Glaswegian had earned the reputation of his men several times over since they landed at Sword beach.
“Handgrannaten!”. The cry went up and a hail of stick grenades were launched. Unterfeldwebel Kellerman had arrived. Seeing Koenig’s men faltering in the crossfire he had brought forward Peterson’s squad at the run. Through the undergrowth they ran, the hedge their objective.
“Run like buggery!” It wasn’t a command to be found in any tactical manual, but Capstan’s men knew what he meant. They had lost three men from their already under-strength section as it was. They were not about to face this new threat with any enthusiasm. Surrendering the hedge to the Germans they fled back the way they had come, using the remnants of the smoke screen to cover their hasty withdrawal.
Now McKie could see the Germans bringing forward their fresh squad to face his men in the orchard. “Tom, for Goods sake concentrate your Bren on those crowd on the left, they’ve taken some pretty hard knocks a’ready, if we can drive them off we’ve half a chance”. The Yorkshireman nodded and focussed the Bren’s fire on the Germans already skulking in the undergrowth. A burst of particularly accurate fire saw the German LMG fall silent, and then men could be seen running back from the wood. The odds had just improved significantly.
Kellerman cursed. His men had been exchanging fire with the British in the orchard, but their opponent’s fire had not dropped off at all. Off to his left he could see another British section working its way round to his flank. He had sent two men out to scout that area, but they had not returned. He feared the worst. Lehrmann should have been over there with his squad, but he was nowhere to be seen. He cursed again. This was a fight that was not going his way. He signalled the retreat.
Lieutenant Sandy St Clair joined Sergeant McKie in time to see the last of the Germans slip from view. “I say Sergeant. The enemy have gone! It’s over!”.
“Aye sir. The ghosts of their Feldgrau and camouflaged smocks have vanished into the smoke again. But this time they are the ones running!”
“Ah, yes. Indeed. Jolly good. Carry on.”
This had been advertised as the fourth game in the campaign. In fact it was the fifth as Lieutenant St Clair had not felt able to make a stand in the old German outpost positions and had retired back to his starting line in order to reorganise his men. This rather upset his Colonel, but it did undoubtedly serve a purpose. Some of the men lost in the chaos after the ignominious defeat of the third game had pulled themselves together and returned to their sections. With a more coherent force Sergeant McKie had overcome all odds to hold his men together under fire and see off a superior German force. Unfortunately for him Lieutenant St Clair had not seen the action, and had arrived just as the Germans were quitting the field. His battle had entailed shooting a couple of German scouts and walking across a field.
As it was this action restored the C.O.’s opinion somewhat, and the British losses had been sufficiently light – just two men dead – for the men to feel happier about the way they are being looked after. Lieutenant St Clair has cheered up significantly and is handing round his cigarettes and generally being very affable.
On the other hand, Kellerman’s commanding officer, Major Rumpler, is livid. After the British had given ground he had been expecting a significant victory here, so is more than disappointed. That said, Kellerman is quite relaxed about developments. By pulling out when he did he kept casualties to an acceptable level. He’ll need every man he can get for the next phase of the campaign which is likely to be a British attack.
As we stand the Germans have now permanently lost five men from the platoon, the British four men, so both sides are having to think about how they configure their platoons for each battle.