March 1945. World War II comes to an end. Not far from the border with Germany, in an American camp located a few kilometers from the Rhine, the clatter of several tanks’ engines of several tanks roar. Steel monsters whose sturdy greenish skin glows dimly due to the morning dew. A handful of Sherman tanks get ready to cross the mighty German river. In front of them, a tall, immature, novice soldier holds a newly released M3 submachine gun in his hands; hardly been used during the basic instruction period, the weapon presents an impeccable state. He can barely conceal his curiosity and fascination, with his gaze fixed on those tanks. He has never joined a battle. Neither he’s had the privilege of seeing the popular Shermans in action.
Lying on one of the Shermans’ turret, a lanky artilleryman who holds the rank of corporal, hardened by long years of suffering in battle, calibrates with an expert eye his mate’s weapon. He makes a toothpick dance between his lips: a small piece of wood bounces nimbly from one corner of his mouth to the other; at the same time, he is weighing everything he has heard about the M3 carried by the young soldier. Yes, there’s no doubt about it; it’s the weapon he’s heard so much about.
The eyes of the small corporal glint with mischief. A simple gesture of his head works as an invitation for the inexperienced soldier to approach the beast of steel that does not stop purring. Without a second thought, the crewman of that Sherman offers him a cigarette; he wants to earn his trust.
The recruit turns it down, he doesn’t smoke. There is no time to beat about the bush, the time of the advance towards the Rhine approaches. Urgent voices emerging from the hatch confirm it.
All of a sudden, with a facial expression showing signs of threat, the corporal offers him a weapon worn away by the passage of time. It is an old Thompson submachine gun, whose surface presents a patina typical of those who have used their “work tool” daily. Sparing, the corporal offers him a change, but the soldier, in spite of feeling intimidated by the intense look of his interlocutor, evades the exchange with a vain excuse. He thinks to himself: his sergeant would have killed him for having abandoned his regulation weapon. Frustrated, the corporal spits to the side and disappears inside the Sherman, but not without glancing briefly at the gleaming M3.
However… Why does an experienced veteran contemplate this submachine gun with such curiosity?
HISTORY OF THE M3.
At the end of 1942, its designer, Georg Hyde, left behind several prototypes of submachine guns called T-15 and T-20. The different sketches and designs came to life in the production lines thanks to the engineer Frederick Sampson’s help. Since the beginning of the war, the United States Army had been using the Thompson submachine gun, which was too expensive and complex to produce (almost ten times more). By the end of 1942, the mass-production of the M3 started.
M3 Submachine gun, “the Greaser”
The M3, like the British Sten gun, was intended to be a submachine gun with little manufacturing cost and, in turn, that would require little work time on the assembly lines.
Since the first units came into existence, the M3 users noticed its rough appearance; visually, less attractive than the popular Thompson. The deadly M3 was conceived to be the substitute of the aforementioned Thompson, the submachine gun of distinguished appearance and careful craftsmanship.
Replica of the M3 Submachine gun manufactured by Denix
But once in the testing ground, the newborn M3 soon revealed itself as a reliable weapon; the results in the marksmanship tests proved it. Overcoming its predecessor with a significant advantage. Of course, some faults were detected, such as the problem with the weapon’s loading system and its subsequent stucking. Nevertheless, the M3 continued its way towards the front, the place that would fill soon to record its name in History.
Comparison between the M3 and its modernized version, the M3A1
One could say that the Thompson was a resistant, powerful and heavy weapon, that required a huge investment of time and money to be manufactured. Instead, the M3 was the opposite: cheap, manageable and, according to many of those who used it, a trustable weapon (although some didn’t share this point of view). In essence, the M3 was a weapon designed to be produced on a large scale, in a short time and at a low cost.
About 640,000 units left the assembly lines between 1943 and 1945. Including several tens of thousands of the M3’s improved version, the M3A1 (introduced at end of 1944), whose design solved some of its predecessor’s faults. Problems such as the accidental shots, the bolt, the chamber’s protective cover and the iron sights, among others.
A PLACE CALLED REMAGEN.
Someone with stripes, that induce respect and impose authority with a glance at them, screams to spur his subordinates. Many of the veterans, exhausted after long days of fighting upon their shoulders, barely flinch. They only stand up while mumbling extensive curses. Only the novices obey without questioning the orders that already rumble in their ears.
German anti-aircraft position next to the Ludendorff Bridge
Within minutes, a tide of uniforms oscillating between green and brown shades starts up. With the sound of the footsteps as a backdrop, the human mass begins to spread through the landscape. Each company is dispersed in platoons as they tensely move forward to the front. At the same time, the platoons of US soldiers open the formation in sepulchral silence. Only the Shermans who follow them closely dare to disturb the tense stillness with their mechanical rattle.
Eyes alert. Lurking ears. Each man sharpens their senses to the fullest. Nervous fingers drum on the weapons they carry. The most anxious caress the trigger. Many firmly grasp their respective rifles, others do the same with their carbines.
View of Remagen
Several newcomers hold their brand new M3 submachine guns. Some of them, with the confidence given by the advance in the company of several mates, scrutinize the rough looking weapon out of the corner of their eye.
Silence. The word repeated over and over by the officers and NCOs who lead the units approaching an extensive bridge over the Rhine. The Remagen Bridge.
There, in the city bathed by the waters of the mighty river, the destruction vented its rage on almost the entire population. During the previous days, several units of the IX North American Army have engaged in heavy fighting with German troops to take control of the bridge. A vital walkway from Remagen that links with the opposite shore, located a little more than three hundred meters away. The Ludendorff Bridge, flanked at each end by pairs of stony towers of imposing appearance, riddled by shrapnel, leads to a tunnel. A tunnel from which emerges, as a metallic tongue, the railway line that connects with the population.
The reinforcements, at this place, must consolidate the land gained beyond the Rhine and, later, progress towards the interior of Germany. The effort carried out with blood, sweat and tears by the soldiers of the IX Army can not fall on deaf ears.
M26 Pershing in action near Remagen
The fresh troops, mired in tense silence, look with trembling eyes at the picturesque landscape in which Remagen is immersed. The Shermans roar. Some huge M-26 Pershing, who have joined at the last minute, roar loudly as they progress to the bridge. All of them, without exception, point their guns towards the opposite shore.
Officers and troops protect the bridge. Their emaciated faces give a gloomy welcome to the reinforcements. The first ones hardly bother to give directions, because the road is clear and there are no Germans nearby to cause problems.
Boots and chains are move towards the train rail that, elevated on a promontory of soil and gravel, leads men and machines towards the other end. Craters everywhere. The war has hit the surroundings of one of the last-standing bridges on the Rhine.
A CRUCIAL BRIDGE.
Without warning, a heartbreaking symphony breaks loose on the heads and turrets of the steel blocks. The warning bell runs like wildfire. It’s the Luftwaffe, the German Air Force! Several jet fighters Messerschmitt 262 plough through the sky at frenzied speed.
Illustration that shows the aerial attack of several Me-262 to the bridge of Remagen (illustration credits to its author)
As if it were a knee-jerk reaction, American anti-aircraft units begin to spit lead without hesitation. Lethal bursts that sprinkle the sky with countless assassin projectiles. The German planes try to approach the bridge to bring it down. Something failed in the demolition that the Wehrmacht had had to carry out on March 7. Sabotage? Technical failure? Whatever, there’s no turning back! Now it is the turn of the once powerful Luftwaffe.
Hundreds of soldiers run in disarray. The officers shriek in a pointless attempt to put order in the middle of that deafening noise. Death birds fly over Ludendorff Bridge with deadly loads under their wings. The German units drop their bombs one after another. None of them achieves the target. Geysers of water and soil emerge from the riverbed and its surroundings. Some of them pay a high price for the boldness. The American anti-aircraft pieces reap the sky with overwhelming power. Even some men and tanks join the defense and aim their weapons at the flying threat. More than one Me-262 leave a trail of dense black smoke behind. Others, less fortunate, explode in the air, transformed into a blazing ball of blinding fire. The explosions are terrifying.
Our novice soldier, stuck to the ground like glue, prays to all the known deities after contemplating the destruction around him. On the other hand, the senior veterans, leaning on the railway network’s hill or from inside a crater, contemplate with a certain curiosity the flight of the Me-262. Between bombings and shakes, even someone dares to light a cigarette. With expert judgment, there are those who say that tobacco soothe the nerves in similar situations.
American soldiers are heading towards the bridge. In front, a vehicle equipped with an anti-aircraft weapon
Go, Go! Say the officers and NCOs repeatedly. Standing on their feet, they gesticulate to lead their men towards the bridge. Within minutes, with the sky almost cleared of enemies, men and tanks enter the majestic walkway.
With the M3 clutched in his hands, with the chamber still covered by the cap that at the same time serves as insurance, the inexperienced soldier runs along with the rest of his platoon over the bridge. Behind him, the battle-hardened artilleryman’s Sherman follows his footsteps at a good pace. The order is clear. You have to cross the Rhine at all costs. The more men and vehicles, the better. The nearby front line needs reinforcements urgently. Even the auxiliary troops have been required to take part in the fight.
New explosions shake everything around him. It is the German long-range artillery, trying by all means to tear down the bridge in order to prevent the enemy from infiltrating its own territory. The German High Command knows that if the Americans manage to cross the Rhine and achieve to deploy several divisions beyond the river, the war will be irretrievably lost.
Gasping and with his heart about to collapse from the effort and nerves, the novice soldier puts one foot on the other end of the bridge. There, countless craters give him a sinister welcome. The fight between his mates and the Germans, days ago, must have been terrible. The land, tossed and watered with blood, proves it. The towers, still standing, are emaciated, blackened, dotted of metal splinters and hundreds of bullets. After taking long strides, suffocated and shaking, he finally slides into the bridge.
Illustration that recreates the fightings’ fierceness during the taking of the bridge of Remagen (illustration credits to its author).
Once inside, protected by the shelter of the robust structure, the gloom engulfs that boy whose eyes seem to be about to leave their sockets. The little light that dares to penetrate hardly lights up the misery that spreads across the length and breadth of the road that crosses the hill. Suitcases, clothes, abandoned uniforms and countless personal belongings decorate that road in a devastating way. Does this summarize the war? The immature soldier asks himself.
With his eyes fixed on an enemy’s combat jacket resting on one of the rails, he tries to imagine what a German soldier will look like. Dozens of questions come up to his mind. Will I see one of them soon? If so, will I have the courage to fire my weapon? Why the hell am I here? Despite the rumble it comes from outside, an inopportune metallic tinkle awakes him from his daydream.
View from inside the tunnel which leads to the Ludendorff Bridge.
It’s his M3, which responds to his hands tremor. Uncontrollable spasmodic movements. Fear has just tricked him… What would have happened to him, just a few days ago, when dozens of colleagues fought and died during the assault on that bridge?
BEYOND THE RHINE
Almost a month after his debut in the world war, the soldier, no longer so inexperienced, walks with his platoon, all accompanied by a sputtered Sherman where the veteran corporal looks out of the turret with his inseparable toothpick. Their gazes met but they didn’t exchange a single word. They know the meaning of the silence. Words are unnecessary. As soon as he shook his head, the young soldier, whose face seems to have aged several years after experiencing a month of war in his flesh, smiles mischievously. No. He does not want to exchange his M3 for the tanker’s old Thompson. Even less since he had the chance to test the weapon in combat weeks ago.
In the middle of nowhere, after reaching the base of a hill next to a winding road, the sergeant in charge of the squad orders to stop. Someone must go up there to see what’s beyond. The non-commissioned officer isn’t quite sure about it. He checks a worn-out map frowning. He suspects that the enemy can be hiding in a village located on the other side of the hill.
Two volunteers climb to the summit. Two helmets discreetly appear on the top of the promontory. They are the novice soldier and the artillery corporal. One squints. The other uses binoculars to scan the horizon.
American soldier with a M3
In the distance, both spot a small town with no apparent threat. They go back a few meters as two snakes would do to, shortly after, descend in a hurry from the top of that soft hill, where a light green grass emits a certain aroma, pleasant and silky, that impregnates the sunny morning.
Move forward command. Infantry in wedge formation. The tank advances along the road with the soldiers on both sides. Tense faces. The situation requires it. Cautious steps. The houses are soon drawn in the soldier’s eyes. Not even a single soul. Open windows. White curtains flutter at the rhythm of the soft spring breeze. Just three hundred meters separate the tank and the platoon that moves forward alongside.
All of a sudden, ghostly figures run towards the American soldiers. It is a bunch of civilians fleeing in terror. They do not want to succumb in the midst of the approaching skirmish. Like sinister thunder, several shots tear the stillness that reigned in the sunny valley until moments ago. An old man who hardly was walking towards the soldiers collapses with his eyes wide open. The American NCO urges his men. Nobody can stay standing there.
The Ludendorff Bridge after its collapse in mid-March 1945.
The Sherman does not hesitate and opens fire on one of the houses located at the town’s edge. The flashes that blinked under a window frame disappear immediately after receiving the violent visit of the tank’s howitzer.
The echo of the explosion resounds like a blow in the whole valley.
A FIGHT TO THE DEATH IN A GHOST TOWN
Go, Go! The sergeant exclaims to his men. He also cries out to the civilians to move away from the road. From his throat emerge words in imperfect German but more than enough to be understood.
The young soldier, in the company of his platoon with the non-commissioned officer in front, runs like a bat out of hell to the outskirts of the town. Germanic bullets whistle above his head. Also the Sherman ones, that brings up from the rear to the front, shush death on their way towards the positions where the enemy’s rifles are.
Gasping and panting intermingle when the American platoon reaches the first row of houses. Flames and black smoke everywhere. A new howitzer vomited by the Sherman’s cannon has shattered the roof of a nearby house. German voices are heard. Some sound like teenagers’.
Two groups! Move forward on both ends! All-out attack! The American NCO orders while making frantic hand signals. Also the tank responds to his call with its machine gun and cannon distributing lead and death everywhere it aims.
Soldiers of the US Army move forward towards the bridge.
After checking that the lock is removed, the inexperienced soldier mounts his M3 and leaves it ready to open fire. Along with his teammates, he moves stuck to the walls that delimit several farms. Eyes alert. Anxious breathing. The enemy shots thunder even closer. Someone gives the position of several Germans. The answer is immediate. The submachine guns’ bursts crack. Then, several men fall flat on the ground shot down in the back. Only one couple has survived because they managed to enter inside a house on time. Time to reload.
The Sherman, moving forward through the central street, leaves a path of destruction. An unexpected hurtful whistle cuts the air. It’s a Panzerfaust! The anti tank projectile bursts next to the chains of the steel mass. Luckily, it has missed the target. Curses are heard inside the Sherman. They do not have a clean shot to the basement from which the Panzerfaust has been fired.
Like lightning, the young soldier runs to the house from which he has seen fire the lethal anti tank projectile. His murderous trail is too telltale. His companions warn him of the danger. He is alone in the middle of the main town’s artery. Some mates shoot at the windows from which enemy soldiers could shoot him. In spite of some losses, the overwhelming advance of the North American platoon, supported by the Sherman, continues its way towards the center of the town.
One of Remagen’s streets
Next to the frame of the entrance door to a picturesque two-story dwelling and a basement, whose tiny windows face the road, the young soldier, with his back against the wall, huffs and puffs from the effort.
ONE STEP FORWARD… OR A STEP TOWARDS ETERNITY?
Already recovered, he turns on his heels and gives a brutal kick to the door. Time seems to stop before his eyes. Even the rumble of the shots seems to vanish. With the M3 clutched between his hands and his finger stuck to the trigger, he enters the house. The wood creaks under his feet. The soldier’s eyes scan every corner of the hall. Silence. The roar of combat comes muffled from the outside. Suddenly, something catches his attention.
His M3 points towards the bottom of the ground floor. From there, he notices a few stealthy steps. Someone comes up from the basement. The young soldier adjusts the unfolding stock against his shoulder and places his cheek on the weapon. He aims towards the place from which those steps come through. The loader of straight design, with its thirty cartridges, seems to be about release its deadly loads one after another. His owner knows well that emptying the pull just takes a few seconds and that, in addition, the gun will behave well.
Like a jug of cold water, what is presented before his eyes leaves the American completely absorbed. His finger relaxes and he distances himself from the trigger by a few millimeters. A freckled boy with blond hair and green eyes has just turned up before him with a Panzerfaust in one hand and a Luger pistol in the other. The kid, who barely will be fourteen years old, breaks suddenly his walk. The two, facing each other, analyze each other with looks that denote terror, curiosity and respect for the situation. An overwhelming silence in the middle of an unbearable tension.
A brutal explosion shakes the house from top to bottom. Both look outwards looking for an answer. Undoubtedly, a German cannon missed the shot, because the Sherman is too close to the front door and the roar of his engine, still in top shape, announces his presence.
Map of Remagen and the Ludendorff Bridge
As if activated by a spring, the soldier and the kid turn their heads to the front to cross their electric glances, just before a single shot cracks vigorously. A body collapses. Silence for a few seconds. Stillness that is only broken by the sound of hurried footsteps that move away wrapped by the smell of gunpowder in the air. Soon after, the silence returns to the wide hall… And also the calm engulfs the town as it did before the battle.
Child soldier training.
Just then, the main door of that house opens wide. Under its frame, with the light behind him, the silhouette of the Sherman’s artilleryman stands out in the light. A grimace of disapproval shows through his face. He walks cautiously while looking sideways everywhere. His experience impels him to act like a robot. His gaze rests on a single cartridge shell that demands attention with its sinister metallic shine. A corpse lies not very far away from it…
—Friend, you were too impulsive —mourns the artilleryman, while playing with his inseparable toothpick between his dry lips— I’ll take care of her as she deserves… —he whispers in the ear of his dead colleague, leaning on a huge pool of blood that springs from his neck where a bullet hole shows a quick and agonizing death, just before snatching his M3, lying next to him.
Next to the mortal remains of the American soldier, a young truck driver thrown into battle by the pressing demands of the front, now lays the Thompson of his rogue mate. The artilleryman of the Sherman, with his new M3 in his possession, in addition to several loaders grabbed from the corpse, dedicates a last look to his former fellow colleague.
A commemorative plaque remembers those who took part in the battle for the bridge of Remagen
—This is war, friend. In life and in death, what’s yours is mine and what’s mine is yours. Rest in peace mate —he sighs just before returning to his Sherman, motionless in the middle of the main street with one of his chains scattered across stone pavement.
An article by Denix guest blogger: Daniel Ortega del Pozo
original post published on DENIX website on 12/07/2018
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