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Life of a German Soldier in the Huertgen Forest
By Eric Tobey


The following was taken from the Der Meldeweg newsletter & was done so with permission of the publisher.  We would like to thank him for his generosity as well as thank all those who have contributed to this article.  It is with their efforts, we are able to share this valuable research with the rest of you.

The following story was taken from The Battle of the Huertgen Forest by Charles MacDonald; the original source for the story was the VII Corps G-2 files for October 1944.  Although the featured soldier is not a member of the Heer, the experiences recounted can be considered typical for almost any German soldier stationed in those gloomy woods.  Since the 272nd was considered "...that veteran menace of the Huertgen Forest...", we felt that this short narrative would be appropriate.

"Private First Class Herbert Gripan of the 5th Luftwaffe Fortress Battalion shared a slit trench with an older man whom he had never seen, of course, until ten days before.  The trench was three feet deep, topped with logs covered with soil and with branches from the dark green firs.  Even though the NCOs allowed Gripan and his companion no fires, the slit trench was dry and fairly warm as long as the two men huddled together and covered themselves with blankets.  To supplement each man's issue blanket, they had another taken from a man who was killed and would not need it any more.

Gripan's new friend slept much of the time and the two-hour stints of guard duty in the fighting foxholes nearby recurred more often than one might have believed possible, yet the two still found time to do considerable talking.  Gripan had served two years in Russia, his friend three years in Italy and France.  Neither had been in the actual front lines before.

Sometimes they talked about what they would do when the Ami came.  Gripan's companion said he heard that the Americans shot all prisoners found wearing the Iron Cross First Class, but neither man believed it.  They agreed that capture by the Americans was nothing to fear.  Not that they intended to surrender.  There was little talk of surrender.  Naturally, some said it would be better to be captured and come home after the war with limbs intact, but no one dared talk openly about going over to the enemy.  After all, they were now fighting on German soil.

Gripan had no real fear of the American infantry.  At least, others had told him as much, and he saw no reason not to feel the same way.  The American infantryman seldom attacked unless his tanks and planes led the way.  The tanks and planes were what Gripan feared.  Mortar and artillery fire, too, of course.  He already had experienced some shelling.  It crashed in great thundering salvoes in the forest, but as long as you were inside your slit trench with the logs and sod above you, it was more frightening than destructive.

Because Gripan and his companion had been on patrol the night before, they slept late the last morning.  Emerging from the slit trench, Gripan made his way to the Company command post in a pillbox and returned with two canteens filled with hot coffee.  Then they ate a breakfast of bread, margarine, and sardines, saved from their hot meal of the afternoon before.  They always had one hot meal during the day, usually in the afternoon.  The hour depended on whether Americans planes and artillery interrupted movement from the rear.  Sometimes the food arrived quite late.

They had finished eating breakfast when the platoon sergeant came by to check whether they were still there and whether either man wanted to go on sick call.  He brought some mail for Gripan's companion and a copy of the army news sheet, Mitteilungen für die Truppen.  The news sheet was so full of propaganda nobody would have read it except there was nothing else to read.

Soon it was Gripan's turn to go on guard.  Taking over from another man in a foxhole about ten yards away, he stood or knelt in the hole for two hours.  Nothing happened.  The sector had been quiet for over a week now, with no sign of the enemy.  Though artillery shells passed overhead occasionally, almost stirring the tops of the tall firs, they landed far to the rear.

His two hours up, Gripan stopped by the command post in the pillbox to see if the hot food had arrived.  The pillbox was dark and murky, lit only by candles.  None of the officers were there, only some NCOs and a few runners.  Everybody was sitting around on packing cases reading letters or the news sheet and waiting for the telephone to ring.

Gripan took the food - noodle soup, boiled potatoes, fresh pork, and bread (he did not bother with the coffee, since they had some left from breakfast) - and went back to his slit trench.  His friend was delighted that the food had come so early.

Before night came, Gripan had another uneventful tour of guard duty, and then, in fading light, he found time to write a letter on paper borrowed from a man in another trench.  He told his family all was well.  What was the point in giving news that might discourage them?

It started to rain after dark, a cold, relentless rain, but it did not bother Gripan and his buddy as long as they were in their slit trench.  But at eight o'clock the sergeant came.  Both men were to go on patrol again.  Gripan swore to himself.  Why didn't they pick somebody else for a change?

Five men made up the patrol.  Because the word was that the Americans were planning another attack, the patrol was to try to take a prisoner so they might check on the enemy's intentions and his strength.  

As the patrol moved out, it was so dark that Gripan could see no more than six paces ahead of him, and then could make out no more than vague forms.  For about an hour they moved cautiously through the woods, not hearing a sound.  Then the patrol leader motioned the men to halt.  It would be better, he said, if they split up, two men going one way, three another.  In an hour, he would fire a flare from a signal pistol to indicate they were to assemble to go back to their positions, bringing prisoners with them if either group had any.

Gripan did not think much of this arrangement.  He did not even know what color signal flare the patrol leader intended to fire, but he thought it best not to question.  In any event, he saw no flare at all.  After wandering aimlessly in the woods, he and his companion decided there was nothing to do but lie down and sleep as best they could right where they were.

The next morning they woke up to find themselves only a few yards from an American tank.  What was a man to do, Gripan asked himself, but surrender?

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