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MacDonalds's Company Commander - Insights

Discussion in 'ETO, MTO and the Eastern Front' started by Earthican, Nov 7, 2012.

  1. Earthican

    Earthican Member

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    I am re-reading MacDonald's Company Commander for the first time in many years. I don't have a clear memory of reading it since I was a teen. I was quite ignorant of the details of the US Army campaign in western Europe but that did put me in the position of the characters -- not knowing what came next or even the 'Big Picture'. When I first read the book I did not have access to detailed maps, certainly not Google maps and satellite imagery, or even the US Army official history (Green Books).

    I knew it was well written and provided a company commander's view of leading a rifle company in combat. I may have thought it was a bit detached with its clear description of military matters, combined with personal experiences but lacked the excitement of what could be called "combat erotica". It probably left me with a slightly negative view of the effectiveness of the US Army Infantry.

    Reading the first few sections now I am a little surprised by how novel-esque or vivid the writing is. Of course I have more clear imagines in my head of how the uniforms and equipment looked and what is really going on with the messengers, the First Sergeant's Morning Report, marching by twos, and such.

    The writing aside (for now), my original idea for this thread was to share some of the detailed maps I have and combine those with the sketches (maps) found in the Bantam books edition. I know there are some editions without any included sketches so people will at least get those out of this effort. I might discuss tactical matters too.

    Further, I thought we might be able to illustrate some aspects of the book. To start, he provides a pretty good description of the first Westwall bunker he occupied. I don't want to find the original bunker just identify the standard floor plan and maybe some pictures of identical existing bunkers.

    I'll post this now and come back with some maps and short excerpts later. Feel free to post any comments or ideas.
     
  2. Slipdigit

    Slipdigit Good Ol' Boy Staff Member WW2|ORG Editor

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    Excellent book. I read it again about 2 years ago and it was well worth my time.
     
  3. Earthican

    Earthican Member

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    Yes it is, on so many levels. I picked this time of year to start reading so that my weather matches the story. I don't plan to sit overnight in a flooded foxhole though.
     
  4. Earthican

    Earthican Member

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    I'll just post the first Bantam sketch and a section of a modern map. The map is printed by Luxemboug but the area covered is Germany. Not much has changed, even the Dragons Teeth are still present.

    Recall MacDonald took over Item Company of the 23d Infantry, 2d ID in September 1944.

    The first "action" is in the southern portion of the sketch, 4 - 13 Oct 1944. The additional information I get from the map is the topography. Notice how the clusters of German held Westwall bunkers match the hilltops, starting with 544 north of Leidenborn, moving east and north in an arc, 559, 568, 553. These all circle the 3d Battalion positions.

    This minor dent in the Westwall was effected by the 110th Infantry, 28th ID in September. Read about it in the official history here, do a browser Find for "kesfeld".

    HyperWar: The Siegfried Line Campaign
     

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    TD-Tommy776, belasar and Slipdigit like this.
  5. Earthican

    Earthican Member

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    I found a GSGS map online which is probably based on pre-war data. This makes a nice place to exam Item Company positions in detail.

    As presented in the book sketch, Item Company is in the middle of the battalion position facing south with its platoons arrayed left to right: 1st, 2d and 3d. The company CP is located in a bunker to the right rear of "the farmhouse" on the eastern end of the company line.

    Not shown on the sketch or the map are minor streams that run in the "draws" depicted by the contour lines. The stream separating the 3d platoon is mentioned in the text. This draw provides a reverse slope which helps cover daylight movement in the 1st and 2d platoon areas. The 3d platoon has neither a reverse slope nor vegetation so the GI's must remain in their foxholes throughout the day.

    While MacDonald mentions the buildings of Kesfeld in the valley, he does not mention the other farmhouses southwest of his company line. To me, these seem to provide a jump off point for enemy activity against his company. It is possible these buildings were flattened in the previous fighting. To my surprise, an attack is launched from the southeast where woods are seen to cover the valley floor.

    So far not mentioned is any company patrol activity. Battalion would order specific patrols, but a company should run its own security and intelligence patrols -- getting to know the neighborhood. Likely the platoons are running their own without even calling them patrols.

    I suspect the main German positions are on the high ground south of Kesfeld. The book sketch shows a few Westwall bunkers there. This would provide a nice view over the US positions and a reverse slope to cover daylight movement. Kesfeld may be defended by a small force but given the stretched nature of German forces it is more likely just outposted (colored dots).
     

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  6. Natman

    Natman Member

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    Gary,

    Just for comparison, here's the same area on my map. Looking forward to your interpretations of the book/maps.


    View attachment 17667
     

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  7. Volga Boatman

    Volga Boatman Dishonorably Discharged

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    Earthy, why the suprise at 'jump off' positions in the middle of wooded areas on a valley floor? Surely the thick foilage and trees would serve to mask the early concentration of troops and equipment before 'zero' hour. Just a thought, because I noticed you were quite suprised by this.
     
  8. Earthican

    Earthican Member

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    Between the woods in the valley and the US positions, the ground appears more open and might provide clear fields of fire. MacDonald has mentioned one of his LMG's (air cooled Browning on a tripod) on that flank. Small arms battle ranges only go out to about 300 meters. To their credit the Germans attacked at night which could help them get across the open ground. In recalling this action, I am pretty certain MacDonald did not mention using any illumination from his company mortars.

    As concise as MacDonald is in military matters, I know his object was not to provide tactical insights. He was more concerned with exploring leadership and fear found in front line command.

    Last night's reading brought me to an attack directed at King Company on the battalion right. Item's 2d platoon got hit by some troops apparently moving through the southwest farms. Some tense moments for the CP where they can only hear the fighting.
     
  9. Earthican

    Earthican Member

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    Moving on to the 29 Oct to 11 Dec positions occupied by Item Company, found in the top half of the book sketch (Post #4).

    Here the 23d Regiment had shortened its lines by pulling out of the Westwall bunkers. Item Company constructs dugout shelters on the reverse slopes to help weather the winter.

    MacDonald only mentions the reverse slope positions but I have to believe his platoons occupy the hilltop military crests. These would provide long range observation and fields of fire out to 300 meters. A reverse slope defense limits your field of fire but allows you to shelter from a close opponent with substantial direct fire capabilities. The Japanese made good use of reverse slopes on Iwo Jima and Okinawa.

    For the reason above and other discrepancies I don't think the book sketch captures the description of Item Companies position found in the text.


    Since these are also the positions that the 106th ID will use to defend against the Ardennes attack, it is no surprise that in A Time for Trumpets, MacDonald will provide a clear description. However it is known that the Cannon Company of the 424th Infantry defended the Weissenhof Crossroads but MacDonald does not indicate that the 23d Infantry deployed there.
     

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  10. Earthican

    Earthican Member

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    Moving on to the next major action. The 2d ID is pulled out of its resting positions to participate in the first Roer River Dam attacks. The 23d Infantry is in reserve near Camp Elsenborn, Belgium when the Germans launch the Ardennes offensive. The 3d Bn is immediately sent to back-up the 393d Infantry in the woods east of Rocherath.

    The attached sketch illustrates the defensive positions occupied by Item, King and L Companies. Previously I had assumed MacDonald helped prepare these sketch's but given the errors that is probably not the case.

    The first error to note is that, based on the text, Item Company deployed to the east side of the forest road (MacDonald calls it a highway, later histories describe it as a forest track). This is clear from the description of a shallow draw that parallels the west side of the road. This draw can be found on later topo maps.

    The sketch also shows a "road" that runs west of the main road. Maps show many tracks that could follow the same path but this "road" plays no role in MacDonald's report.

    Glad to have almost any sketches in a military history but compare them with the text to see if they match.
     

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  11. Earthican

    Earthican Member

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    On December 17, 1944, MacDonald repeatedly cites being ordered to hold "at all costs". At the same time he and his platoon leaders are begging for more ammunition. So what are the military precepts for running out of ammunition? I see the problem of ordering someone to hold just until they run out of ammunition (particularly if they have semi-automatic rifles). But at the same time you don't want soldiers to just surrender when they run out of ammunition. It would be better if they attempt to withdraw when they are low on ammunition or even run away when out of ammunition.

    Again I understand MacDonald is trying to write a book for general audiences, but I would like to explore the military "procedures" for monitoring the level of ammunition and decisions for withdrawal, retreat or whatever you want to call it. Presumably the NCO's would monitor ammunition levels during the lulls in the battle. And then report these in concise values such as clips(8 rounds) per man and belts(100 or 200 rounds) per MG to the platoon leader.

    Throughout the battle I noted battalion headquarters never promised more ammunition or frankly admitted they had none. While again understandable, it seems to guarantee a total breaking of the position rather than a orderly withdrawal or retreat. For me this raises the question of the difference between a professional military, top to bottom, and the conscripts of World War II. Beyond the conscript question is the continuous turn over in men which forced many PFC squad leaders and such.

    Any other thoughts?
     
  12. Earthican

    Earthican Member

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    For the next section the 23d Infantry is attached to the 1st ID for the attack to close the Bulge. After the 23d Infantry is pulled out of the line and rebuilt with replacements, it has orders to attack on the right flank of the 1st ID and left flank of the 30th ID.

    In the afternoon the 3d Battalion attacks to clear a wooded area. Facing south, Love Company is on the right and Item Company is on the left. Initially the objective is an east-west firebreak in the woods but, after dark, orders are received to advance to the south edge of the woods.

    This is the first attack MacDonald will lead his company. He is still a new company command with experience only in defense. Throughout his time with the company there is no mention of training to work-in the replacements and build mutual confidence among the leadership. Presumably there has been "shop talk" among the officers about what they learned in OCS and what they learned in combat.

    Recall the 2d ID's previous combat experience was in the hedgerows of Normandie and Bretagne. I believe, in the Siegfried Line Campaign, MacDonald did comment (or repeated a comment from a Corps officer) that the 29th ID had to unlearn some habits they had learned in the hedgerows.

    I guess my point here is that small unit infantry operations do not go as smoothly as depicted in movies or as described in many general histories. It takes some time to develop the team work that can deal with all the things that can go wrong in the face of an armed enemy.


    Not thoroughly described is the extreme winter conditions of January 1945. For a great eye level view of this I suggest a read of Raymond Ganter's Roll Me Over. In this case his 16th Infantry is on the left of MacDonald's outfit.
     

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  13. Earthican

    Earthican Member

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    While looking into the larger operations around the 23d Infantry I came across an error on the map of US Army official history, The Last Offensive. The second advance of the 30th ID was labeled as the 7th AD while the advance of the 7th AD was unlabeled. The attached shows a correction. Since the text is rather vague on these operations I thought it worth pointing out.


    I also found this report of the 7th AD operations to retake St Vith.

    After Action Report, 7th Armored Division, Jan 1945
     

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