WWII - A Sniper War Story

< 1999
By 2LT H.J. Halterman

In the book "To Ride, Shoot Straight and Tell the truth" author Jeff Cooper tells the story of a German footsoldier with the nom de guerre of "Gerhard Taubnitz." If Cooper's "Taubnitz tale" is more that of one soldier's unconquerable will than it is of rifle marksmanship, do know that some pretty good shooting is described in the story- and the equipment used is interesting.

But the point that Cooper is trying to make is that unless someone writes such stories down, they'll be lost forever, as the men who performed such deeds die off. Sniper Country is at least one such place where some of those stories can be told, and for my first effort I thought that I'd repeat, to the best of my ability, a story from the closing days of World War II that I first heard around 1965.

The Old Soldier telling the story had spent his time in the Army Air Corps, figuring conditions would be at least more comfortable than they were at the time for an expendable mudfoot infantryman. They gave him a Tech Sergeant's rank and a slot in aerial photograph interpretation, doing bomb damage interpretation of targets in Norway that the Eighth Air Force wanted removed from the map. Since the young Sergeant spoke a little family Norwegian, all seemed cozy in his nice, safe, rear-area job until, during the last days of the war, somebody got one of those really great ideas. Given that the Germans were pulling out of Norway, wouldn't it be a really great idea to send a team in to photograph the actual targets of the bombing runs against the estimates that the intelligence types figured the enemy had suffered...and since that one Tech Sergeant spoke a little Norwegian, guess who was picked to go on that little trip!

The unit had two jeeps, one with a driver, a photographer and a Captain. Our fearless Tech Sgt. drove the other, and had a 2nd Lieutenant with his personal camera as a spare to the "official" photographer's rig and so he could shoot any really interesting stuff that turned up. Since neither jeep had a machine-gun mount, someone thoughtfully provided a security detail in a 3/4 ton truck with a mounted thirty caliber Browning MG, a driver, a couple of scared Privates with rifles and another Sergeant to keep track of them. And off on their secret mission they went.

The first thing they found in Norway [under new management] was that the Germans had removed all of the highway road signs. This should have provided no great challenge to these experienced intelligence types, but within the first hour they managed to get lost anyway. And then came the difficulty that has greeted travelers since the very first roads: a fork offering the choice of two possible directions, and no such intersection appearing ANYWHERE in their area on the maps that had been provided to them.

So the Captain made one of those Command Decisions: He'd take one jeep on one fork of the road, the LT and the Tech Sgt would take the other path, and the 3/4 ton would wait at the junction- and if the truck's crew heard firing down either path, they'd do their best imitation of the Cavalry coming to the rescue.

Like lambs to the slaughter, down their respective paths these bold warriors charged, as thoughts of sugarplums, mines and snipers danced in their heads. The Lieutenant and the Sergeant peered carefully ahead and crossed a bridge that spanned a dry gully. About five miles beyond that they came to a village that wasn't supposed to be there, according to those ever-reliable maps they were carrying. There was wreckage in the middle of the street- a fountain perhaps, or maybe a statue. Whatever had wrecked it had not come from an aircraft's belly, but it was worth a photograph.

So they circled the mostly-residential block and came upon the blockage from the opposite side of the street, and then noticed a two-story church, complete with steeple, about three hundred yards down the street.

Now any original sniper is not going to hole up in a church steeple where his routes of escape are too easily limited by even a squad of eight or ten enemy troops. And such towers are so obvious that the real trick is to find a sniper's roost where the targets can be taken under fire while they're avoiding the obvious roost- like a church steeple. Church steeples are much better hiding places for three other critters: bats, chaplains, and artillery forward observers.

The shooter in the steeple had read all the wrong books however, and introduced himself with a shot that hit the jeep in the hood. As the two passengers jumped for cover, he put a second, hurried shot into a front tire. Ten or fifteen seconds later he carefully hit the other tire that was visible to him, then as an afterthought, put five or six more into the hood and radiator. From around the edge of the rubble pile, the two new veterans of fire took stock of their assets and situation: Two personnel, two .45 automatic pistols, and three magazines of seven shots apiece. This was not state-of-the-art, even then, for three hundred yard shooting. And the sun was going down.

The good news was: maybe the guys in the truck had heard- but probably not. No grenades, no cannon fire, just the bark of the rifle fired by someone who clearly appreciated the advantage that he held over his targets, and was quite ready to exploit it.

So who was this hard-core sniper? Some SS trooper who decided to send a personal message to the Americans before he left his position? Maybe an ordinary rifleman who'd been told to delay the oncoming horde of less-than-a-dozen yanks until a given time- sundown, perhaps? Or maybe just a Norwegian who was tired of foreigners from any army defiling his nation and his home town. Whoever he was, and whatever kind of equipment he was using, he could shoot.

The two G.I's voiced their thoughts to each other, it helped replace the terror of possibilities that were undreamt of when they were safe at their base in England just 24 hours ago. How much ammo does this guy have? What if he slips out a back door and takes us from behind? And WHAT IF HE HAS FRIENDS...?

The scary possibilities were replaced by the dreams: if only we'd brought a Thompson, if only the 3/4 ton had come with us, if we only had a radio. Another shot was fired and another bullet danced off the rubble pile kicking up dust. He knew exactly where they were.

Another shot tore through the jeep's spare tire. The two sitting ducks ducked anyway. He could get in real trouble for destroying government property like that....

Well, they had to do something. The Sergeant lined his .45 up on the very tiptop of the steeple, cranked in a little more elevation for good lucks sake, and squeezed off a shot. Both GIs could hear the solid whack as the .45 slug tore into the clapboard siding on the first floor of the building, at least 10 or 15 feet below the sniper's window. In the next ten minutes or so, the sniper fired off a clip of five rounds, all of them coming within inches of his hidden victims. This interesting but unpleasant situation had been going on for nearly an hour and the light was fading fast.

They couldn't back away; they'd be easy targets in the open. They couldn't go left or right in the street; he'd get one or the other of them for sure. And any thought of charging three hundred yards at a capable sniper was certain suicide for both of them. Their jeep was useless, and their hopes for outside assistance seemed less likely with every passing minute. If they had a guitar with them, they could have written a hillbilly song about the predicament that they were in.

As if things weren't bad enough, their canteens were in the back of the jeep and their throats were dusty and parched. That was when the LT got the bright idea that cost them their canteens.

Only 10 or 15 feet from the back of the jeep, they were still easy targets if they ran for the water, or even tried to crawl to it. But there was another option.

The Lieutenant carefully fired at the jeep, just under the seat. He fired seven times, then changed magazines and fired seven more. [He saved the last seven, however.] Once he'd had his fun, he had the Sgt fire at the same place, marked by the filler cap for the gas tank. After 28 of the big .45 slugs had torn through the little car's sheet metal, the scent of gasoline made its presence known. Shortly thereafter a hastily assembled torch was improvised from the map that had turned out to be not so useless after all, and without ceremony was pitched toward the jeep's ventilated carcass.

The result was as spectacular as they had hoped for. There was just enough light for the truck crew to figure out that Something Was Very Wrong and come to their aid. Even better, the smoke from the jeeps burning tires gave them enough concealment to escape from behind the rubble pile to the better cover of the corner of the closest building. It was a shame about the jeep, the camera and the canteens, but it was an improvement. The map was no great loss.

The Great Battle with the Sniper Somewhere in Norway was over, no more shots were fired. The two seasoned veterans retreated along the road that had brought them to their day's adventure, found the bridge that they'd crossed- it seemed further back now that they were traveling on foot- and finally found the other jeep and the truck, happily unaware of the smoke plume or the gunshots down the road.

The next day the whole team cautiously returned to the village and, under the careful eye of the machine-gun, inspected the building where all the shots directed at them had come from. There wasn't so much as a cartridge case to be found, and though the burned-out jeep added to the litter in the main street, all of their .45 cartridge cases had been policed up as well: a tidy battlefield is a happy battlefield.

The Sergeant never went anywhere off his air corps base without AT LEAST a carbine again.

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