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Dmitry Yudo aka Overlord, jack of all trades
David Lister aka Listy, Freelancer and Volunteer

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Aachen's Call

At 1615 on the 15th of October 1944 two US combat patrols met in a muddy area of countryside. The soldiers were from the 1st and 30th Divisions, and their linking up late on that Sunday afternoon meant that the German city of Aachen was now officially surrounded. For the last five days the two forces had been a mere two miles apart, but repeated attacks by the 116th Panzer "Greyhound" Division had kept the two US forces from closing. Now trapped in the pocket were some 5000 German soldiers backed up by five tanks, six 150 mm's, nineteen 105 mm's and eight 75 mm's, although the latter may have been anti-tank guns not artillery pieces. In addition the city was heavily fortified with bunkers, and even where not fortified by concrete the city was constructed of heavy thick stone walls, turning every house into a bunker.

The city of Aachen was in the US Army’s original plan to be surrounded and left to wither on the vine. However the logistic problems faced by the attackers, and the forces required to surround it were considered, plus there was the propaganda value. As an ancient city the German Kings were crowned there, and holding it gave the Nazis an air of legitimacy. It was also the first big German city to be threatened by the Allies. Faced with this possible rallying cry, and their own problems the Allies decided to subdue the city.
First however, like the days of Charlemagne (who was born in the city) the Allies broadcast an ultimatum calling for the city’s surrender within 24 hours, or it would be reduced with all the forces they could bring to bear. Colonel Gerhard Wilck (the garrison commander) did not reply, he was later to comment on the state of the German officer corps and say "The only cement that holds many German officers in place is fear, not only for their own lives, but of reprisals against their families at Himmler's hands."
Thus with neither side willing or able to give terms, the ultimatum expired on the 11th of October at 1200, and the US Artillery began to fire, and the US 1st Infantry Division began its attack.

On one hand the 1st Division only had two infantry battalions of the 26th Infantry regiment to act as assault troops. But they did enjoy some certain advantages. While the city was not yet completely surrounded they did have enough of it to place the artillery support in a position to fire parallel to the line of advance. Artillery fire was often long or short of its target point by a significant margin, but the degree of inaccuracy laterally is very small. Normally when firing over the heads of friendly troops it is the length ways inaccuracy that causes problems. With the side on set up the artillery could be brought down startlingly close to the US forces, sometimes even being aimed at targets within the same block, which game the US a massive fire-power advantage.
The US Infantry moved their way down streets in bitter close-in fighting, slowly pushing the Germans back. But the buildings proved very resistant to the 75mm and 76mm guns of the US armour. A new weapon was needed, and as luck had it the US Army had reluctantly adopted just such a weapon, the M12 Gun Motor Carriage.
The M12 was a First World War vintage 155mm gun, copied from the French and mounted on the chassis of a M3 Lee. The whopping 155mm gun fired its 95 pound shell at nearly 2500 feet per second. There is a story of one M12 taking a hit to the gun barrel, just short of the muzzle. Desperately needing this gun back in action at the front and no replacement barrels being available a quick fix was suggested and carried out, of just cutting a foot off the end of the barrel and sending it back into action. This, technically, created a sawn off self propelled artillery piece!

The effects of the M12's was colossal. Towards the final days of the battle one M12 was brought up and fired towards the final German defenders. The shot slammed into the first house and blasted a hole right through it. The round then carried on smashing through another two houses before the delayed action fuse caused it to detonate inside a fourth house, blowing it to pieces. One round was also used upon Colonel Wilck's HQ, a disused cinema. This caused Col Wilck to refer to them as barbaric during his interrogation shortly afterwards. However one should consider the Colonels mental state during this time. An account of his interrogation can be found here.
An example of how the M12's were brought into action can be found at Hindenburgstrasse. There lay a German bunker impervious to anything the US could get directed at it. So an M12 was brought up, however the M12 was a very rare and vitally important piece, and no replacements could be found if it was knocked out. With only one to cover the battalion the US commander had to be careful.
To get a line of fire onto the bunker the M12 would have had to be driven out into the main street exposing it to a hail of enemy fire. The commander used a bit more ingenuity. He brought up a M10 Tank Destroyer and used it to cut a firing slit in the wall with point blank high velocity shells. Then he sent some tanks to flanking positions where they commenced a suppressing fire. Then he sent some infantry out to clear some of the nearby houses on the German side so that they couldn't be used by a Panzerfaust team to ambush the M12. Then the M12 was emplaced at the "firing slit", lined up on the German bunker, and began to fire as fast as the gun could. The M12 fired twelve rounds, some at the bunker, some lobbed in general at the German positions. Later it was found out the bunker had in fact been a German tank, which had been obliterated by the 155mm shell. Equally, one of the randomly fired rounds had, by sheer luck caught a Panzer that had been emerging from a side street to fire at the M12. Obviously it too was destroyed.

Image Credits:
militarymashup.com and www.dailyherald.com