SECOND UNITED STATES CAVALRY – A HISTORY
Compiled, edited and published by Historical Section, Second Cavalry Association
Maj. A. L. Lambert and Cpt. G. B. Layton, 2d Cavalry
3-6 August 1944
By the evening of the 3rd, B Troop encountered the enemy near Vitre (map I)(map 15). The Troop, in reserve, was advance guard for 2d Squadron Headquarters. The axis of march was through Vitre. Upon approaching the town of Val d’ Ize (map 15), four kilometers northwest of Vitre, the column, led by Lt. Ratcliffe and the 3rd Platoon, reached the top of a hill and had started down the other side when an enemy vehicle, a touring car with four occupants, came out of a side road and loomed into view about 75 yards from the point bantam.
The machine gunner, Pvt. Perry, quickly swung his gun into action and poured a stream of lead into the enemy vehicle. The lead armored car pulled up beside the jeep and threw two rounds of HE through the victim’s radiator. After the first flurry of excitement a group of men went down and investigated. They found that our fire had killed three of the four occupants and that the other, apparently injured, had escaped.
Capt. Potts ordered the column to dismount, and a skirmish line extending several hundred yards to either flank was quickly formed and moved forward, seeking the escaped German and any indication of other enemy in the area. After covering approximately 400 yards an enemy gun nest on our right flank opened fire. We concentrated our small arms fire on this barrier and soon neutralized it, but the MG crew was able to withdraw under cover of darkness. Never-the-less we had drawn first blood in this greatest of all hunts, the stalking and capture of other men.
As it was rapidly growing dark the Troop was quickly reorganized, the vehicles remanned, and bivouac set up for the night in a nearby apple orchard. Everyone not on duty was preparing to bed down for the night. It was about 2200 and a bright moon was generating the light of an early morning sun, when out of nowhere there appeared a formation of 25 to 30 medium German bombers accompanied by some fighter planes. Could it be that the Luftwaffe was already seeking us? Not this time, for the bombers continued on their way and everybody breathed a sigh of relief. Our sense of comfort, however, was soon shattered by the reappearance of the fighter planes, who circled our position several times. As they swooped down the swastika’s on their wings stood out as boldly as flies in a bowl of milk. Whether they didn’t see enough activity to make our position a good target or had more important business elsewhere we never did find out. Whatever the reason for their hasty departure everyone was relieved to see the last of them. It had been a very busy day for all of us Neophites in this business of modern warfare and we were glad to hit the sack, while the staff stayed up and planned the attack for the next morning.
Those planes didn’t disappear as completely as B Troop thought. Back along the road, near Val d’ Ize the 42d Squadron went into bivouac when the column was halted by the resistance in Vitre.
The staff was digesting the reports of the first contact with the enemy at Fougeres (map I)(map 15) when Col. Reed appeared at the Squadron CP to alert Col. Hill to relieve the 2d Squadron on the following morning – except Troop B which was to attack Vitre.
Now the 42d Squadron was always well dug in the first few days of combat – every halt over ten minutes and each man had his slit-trench dug (and tagged). So it was that day.
As Col. Reed was explaining the plan of reconnaissance for the following day a flight of ME-109’s buzzed the area. It was a case of “rank hath its privileges”, for Col. Reed, as visitor and guest, hit Major Pitman’s hole and Major Pitman dove into Capt. Andrew’s. Capt. Andrews instinctively landed in Sgt. Frisby’s and that worthy trooper, feeling a draft, dove in on top of Capt. Andrews.
Sgt. Frisby was feeling mighty abused and cussing vigorously in several languages. “Thanks for flying top cover, Sergeant” Capt. Andrews told him, “But next time let’s dig that hole a little deeper if we both are going to use it”.
At daybreak, after a quick breakfast, the skirmish line was reformed and we started once more towards our objective, Vitre. This time we were supported by E Troop and a platoon of C was to attack the town from another direction. After traveling a few hundred yards or so we waded a stream and came upon an old farmhouse. We had just finished searching the place, finding nothing of any importance, and were starting to move away when a German MG opened up on us. They may have trouble in basic training impressing on the boys the importance of hitting the ground, but you can take it from me, it doesn’t take long to find out how to get close to Mother Earth when the business end of a machine gun is pointed your way. Your throat becomes dry, the palms of your hands clammy and suddenly you are aware of every little contour of the terrain in front of you. A small knoll, insignificant to the casual view, assumes the protective importance of a mountain.
By taking cover and creeping and crawling we soon by-passed this strong point and were once more moving forward down the road and through the fields toward town. Our progress was quickly interrupted by 40mm and small arms fire which pinned us down in the ditch alongside the road. The assault guns rolled up and proceeded to shell all the strong points we could point out. The Heinies took the hint and pulled back into the town. Cautiously we again commenced to move forward. When we reached the high ground at the entrance to town, artillery firing from a distance of approximately 2000 yards, again temporarily halted our advance. The situation was cleared up somewhat and by 1030 the town was cleared of all major resistance. But even after we had securely established ourselves in the town proper there were still sporadic outbursts of fire from here and there. Civilians would report the presence of a few German soldiers in one place or another and in the process of driving or wiping out these trouble spots there would be a hot exchange of fire.
When quiet again prevailed we suddenly found ourselves possessed with a new and wonderful feeling. We had liberated a town! Tangible evidence of this fact was soon impressed upon us by the actions of the local civilians. They swarmed all over us like ants over a lump of sugar. Each small group of soldiers had it’s own contingent of civilian admirers. Here one of the crowds had lifted a soldier on it’s shoulders and was preparing to carry him off to, perhaps, some private celebration. Close by another crowd, mostly young girls, was expressing it’s satisfaction over the present state of affairs with abundant practical demonstrations of affection. As the food and drinks, most of which must have been guarded jealously through the lean war years, began to make their appearance, the scene took on the appearance of a Mardis-Gras. Our joy was darkened by the bad news from the 1st Platoon of C Troop, who had supported us by flanking the town from the southwest and drawing the German’s attention to that area. As they had moved in to the assault they ran into a nest of 88’s, machine guns and snipers. Here, Pvt. Harry A. Earnshaw was killed, the first man of the Group to die in action.
Enemy held Rennes (map I), under attack by the 8th Infantry and 4th Armored Divisions, was now cut off from Paris (map II)(map III) and another important road center on the way to the Loire was cleared and secured. General Patton immediately designated this point as the concentration area of XV Corps for it’s lunge to close the Falaise Gap (map I).
After Capt. Potts’ Troop cleared Vitre the 42d Squadron, which was committed to action to relieve elements of the 2d, passed through town and drove southward toward Angers (map I)(map II)(map 16). Group Headquarters followed close behind. Enroute orders were received from the 4th Armored Division to relieve elements of Combat Command B in Chateaubriant (map I)(map 16) and Troop A, 2d Squadron, was dispatched to perform this mission.
Group Headquarters closed in the vicinity of Pouance (map I)(map 16) by 2300. Hardly had the bustle of bivouac making quieted down, when the command was awakened again by a brisk fire fight in Pouance. The 1st Platoon of C Troop, 42d Squadron, under Lt. William Pridgen, tangled with a small Jerry column in the town just 300 yards from the Group Command Post.
One crawling Kraut, closing in with a hand grenade, was picked up in a flashlight beam and as he rose to his knees to throw the “Potato masher” Lt. Pridgen drilled him with his carbine. The Kraut froze momentarily, the grenade in throwing position – it exploded! One of the first PW’s taken was bewildered by the appearance of the American troops in the middle of his column. “These damn Yankees, they are everywhere!”
After the excitement died down it was found that the platoon had almost completely destroyed a column of nine trucks loaded with German soldiers. The prisoners were removed, the wounded treated and the dead left in and among the vehicles.
Not all those left were dead however, for at dawn as F Troop tanks rolled past the wreckage a German grenadier rose up in the rear of one of the trucks for a last throw. Capt. J.R. Watson, in the turret of the lead tank, swung his AA MG into action and stitched a line of dots down the side of the Kraut’s face as he sank to the truck bed. Now all the dead were definitely dead!
The 42d really opened up on August 5, as it drove south and east against scattered resistance. Col. Reed gave the order “Tonight I water my tanks in the Loire” and Lt. Col. Hill sent Troop A on a “flying column” mission through St. Mars la Jaille (map I)(map 16). By 1400 a fast moving platoon reached the Loire in the vicinity of Ancenis (map I)(map 16).
During the night S/Sgt. Roy with T/5 Kruse, T/5 Rhodes, Sudoff and Pvt. Rouse, on patrol along the north bank of the Loire, observed a six man German patrol moving along the south bank. They liquidated the Germans by fire and then swam the river to investigate the bodies. They secured important papers that enabled the higher command to obtain a clearer picture of the identification, disposition and probable strength of the enemy south of the Loire. These men were the first Americans to reach the south bank of the Loire. All returned without injury and each was awarded the Bronze Star for his part in this nights work.
At Ancenis many a surprised Kraut ran into Second Cavalry positions. One, a German Luftwaffe Colonel with orders to evacuate all Britanny air supply dumps. Too late! Another, the French engineer who helped design the Brest harbor installations and was now rushing from Paris to plan the demolitions. Then, of course, there was the train.