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"The Battle of Kesternich" Dec. 13-18, 1944
By Johann Reinecke


The following is an account by Leutnant Johann Reinecke, who fought in the Battle of Kesternich from Dec. 13 - 18, 1944. He was a member of Grenadier Regiment 981 of the 272nd Volks-Grenadier Division. (This is the abbreviated version of the letter he wrote to the people of Kesternich in 1957).


"On December 12th, 1944 a new Alarmeinheit (Alarm Unit) was instructed to take on the job of defending Kesternich, with me as its commander. We marched with approximately 150 men from the area of Schmidt through the village of Strauch to Kesternich. It is already dark when we found ourselves in the proximity of a farmstead on the Kesternich-Rurberg road. The road was under bombardment, and flares keep the area in local spots as bright as daylight. In the evening of 13 December, we made it to the battalion command post (of 2nd Battalion, Grenadier Regiment 980, commander by Hauptmann Adolf Thomae) in a cellar near the eastern entrance into town (now Federal Highway 120). I am assigned the left side of Main Street and Second Lieutenant Schmidt takes the right side.  (note: the U.S. 78th Infantry Division had taken the western end of Kesternich by late afternoon, 13 December)

We advance noisiliy toward the front line forward positions along Main Street. It is laborious to move forward over the bomb craters, and along the twisting paths through the piles of clay bricks from the fallen walls, shot-up trees, branches, and dead men! We are not sure if they are those of our friends or enemy’s. And over the disorder, the parachute flares of the Americans throw their pale light on the ruins of the half houses; there are no more intact houses.  The fighting has been going on near Kesternich for weeks. We try not to notice the dreadful impacts of the enemy’s long-range artillery batteries.

Several positions are hit by incoming fire from the west. In front of us the incessant flashing of the distant guns and on the right and left the resulting explosions. The sounds of rifle and machine gun fire echo loosely around us. At the center of town, we turn left into a narrow passage. Before us, on the right, is an open area, and in the background a few buildings, or better yet what remained of them. Now we turn again, this time to the right, we come to a group of houses where the command post is. We have achieved our objective.

I stumbled into the cellar (today, I know that I was in the Falter’s house!). An Oberfeldwebel transfers command of the position to me. He then tells me that the front cannot be seen here. The front is, he says, where one is standing. It is a game of cat and mouse, he says.  I ask where the American positions are and he shrugs his shoulders. He is only sure that they are towards the sawmill, some hundred meters away in the thick mist. For such information I am grateful. When the Oberfeldwebel took off, I send a patrol forward to feel out the enemy’s positions. The houses are free of the enemy. We set up outposts concealed in the hedges, forming hedgehogs (note: organized for all-around defense), in order to protect ourselves from a surprise attack.

Around 9:30 in the morning (on 14 December), I am awakened by someone sounding the alarm that the Americans are attacking. I see a formation of Americans coming up from the ravine. Their target seems to be the sawmill that I can now see well. Even though I thought the enemy had already occupied it, I now believe that it might be enemy-free. With 5 or 6 men we move forward, running in leaps and bounds, to the sawmill. We must defend it, because otherwise our position cannot be held. The Americans succeed in approaching to within 70 meters of our position. Our forces fire on them and they immediately dive to the earth. Now we have the advantage. They have the advantage in numbers, but our field of fire now evens the odds. The first Americans pull back and disappear into the ruins of Main Street, saving themselves.

The rumbling sound of the tanks seems very near. Things soon become uncomfortable. We have no Panzerfaust, and no Ofenrohr (bazookas). Behind the tanks the infantry moves in a new maneuver. Three of the six tanks break into the gardens and move toward the Falter’s house. The other three want to occupy the same place where we are located. They move into a firing position and the first shot hits somewhere in the building or in the sawmill. It cracks hellishly; but it does not do anything to us.

We can hold the accompanying infantry in check, but not the tanks. Strangely, the tanks shoot here and there, seemly without targets. They only needed to fire two or three shots at the house, into the cellar spaces, and our ability to resist would be over. They do not do it. They turn away. The tank moves off with a rumbling sound and disappears between the ruins in the direction of Main Street. The accompanying infantry disappears with them. Hurray! We were great heroes! But we find ourselves trading sheepish looks with one another. In our thoughts of heroism, we are really a little naive, because the attack moved on and we did little to repel it.

Suddenly we were surprised by a frightening noise. From the cellar a strange, complaining noise roars, alerting our tender nerves. Now it repeats itself more thinly. It is a cow. It is standing with us in the knee high water of the cellar, and it gawks at us asking for assistance. It is an emaciated skeleton. Heaven knows how it came to be in the cellar. Actually this is not really a mystery. It had nothing to eat or drink, and became too uncomfortable outside with the artillery fire and the wild humans. It had found the cellar a more advisable place to reside. And, now it is here. We decide it must be shot, but who will shoot it. I do not want to give the command and I cannot do it myself. Here we are in a war, and in such a position we shot other human beings as a matter of course. But here is a poor miserable cow, and we cannot shoot it. We look at each other asking who will finish it. I finally jerk myself up and say: "I will do it! The animal is getting to me." Later, we all spoke of the cow. It was the only thing of "civilian" nature in Kesternich.

The tanks have moved on and with them the accompanying infantry and for a short time peace prevails. Soon however, an artillery bombardment covers us and explosions surround us. We withdraw into our "hero cellar". The American fire continues and always on our group of houses. After a quarter hour it became quiet. With the last explosion, we rush outside again. The Americans do not attack; it seems they are not in our sector of the town. One does not know what will happen next. Over our heads, the Americans have transformed the house to a half ruin. The neighboring buildings are the same. The narrow way to the sawmill is almost impassable; shot-up trees and tangles of branches block the way.

We worry about our wounded. The medics try to decide who should be the one to show the Red Cross flag. If the Americans acknowledge it, and adjust their fire, we could evacuate the wounded without danger. We try it and ten minutes later a cessation of hostilities prevails. A Krankenträgerkommando (litter bearer command) without weapons carries the wounded to the rear. We see that the Americans also use this opportunity to evacuate their wounded. Humanity in the war! It is a scarce quality. During this break in combat I think: "Why do we kill each other?" I believe all soldiers ask themselves this question. We are equal whether we are on this side or the other. Hardly had the wounded reached the safety of the rear when, once again, fire erupts from both sides.

Hours go by with occasional firefights. At about eleven o'clock in the evening, an officer appears. He has verbal orders for me. I become the Kampfkommandant (combat commander) in Kesternich. Now the right side of the road is also under my command.

I give up the sewing factory, because I must hold the village center and I need the main body of the men. Here in Kesternich we make are to make a stand. Later, I must evacuate the group of houses around the Falter’s house. I must make the combat line short, and build on it so that the Americans will not make a serious attempt and will not simply go around us into Kesternich. At about the location of the gas station we establish ourselves along the main road. I still have approximately 80 men under my command. I establish the command post in the solidly built cellar of the second house from the intersection of Federal Highway 84 and the main road.

On the 15th of December a command is given in Einruhr for the complete recovery of Kesternich. From one hundred guns of all calibers the artillery preparation begins. My Alarmeinheit holds the front line, while the others attack.  Three tank destroyers, a self-propelled flak gun and an infantry battalion drive from Einruhr arriving at Kesternich at 1530 hours. They hold the American soldiers of the 309th Infantry Regiment at bay and a Sherman tank is destroyed. We capture approximately 300 American prisoners, including 9 officers. On the 17th of December nothing occurs. On the night of the 18th and on the 19th of December 1944, my men are relieved and take off to their units. I remain an additional day as an adviser for the new troops in Kesternich. On the day before Christmas I am reassigned to the Raffelsbrand Forest. There on the 10th of January 1945, I am badly wounded and come into American hands.

 

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