Excerpts from: Behind the German Lines by Donald Q. Coster
The Readers Digest - 3rd November 1940
Amiens, as our two ambulances re-entered it was a blazing inferno. Every second building was in flames. The streets were blocked with fallen wires, wrecked cars, dead horses, bomb craters. German bombers still roared over-head in wave after wave, dropping their eggs all around us. There was no sign of French anti-aircraft resistance.
We got through to our objective, the Chateaudun hospital, just as the worst bombardment of all broke loose. The hospital received a direct hit, and the French doctor-officer in charge ordered everyone below to the cellar.
We crowded down there 150 of us - doctors, internees, nurses, soldiers, a few civilian women and children - in a small, clammy windowless room, while the terrible, ear-splitting bombardment kept up for an endless hour. Even in the shelter, you could feel the shock of the exploding shells like punches against your chest.
And then all at once these was a complete hush.
I can’t tell you what an eerie feeling it was - this utter silence after an hour of inferno. You could hear this silence - almost see it - with a tiny muffled noise underneath which was your own heart beat. At last it was broken by the clopping of heavy boots overhead. For terrible long minutes we held our breath, waiting for a grenade to be thrown down into our shelter. When none came, I suddenly decided that if I was to be killed I wanted to be above the ground. So I climbed up the stairs to the exit.
Daylight was a shock after the darkness of the shelter. I walked into the courtyard, and there for the first time saw the grey-green German uniform. The soldier’s rifle was aimed at a line of French prisoners backed against a wall.
I can’t speak a word of German so I waved my Geneva Identification card whilst I walked toward him. He turned his gun on me, and seemed to be considering whether to squeeze the trigger. But the answer, at least for the moment, was no. He took my card tried to read it then shook his head and stared at me. King, who spoke a little German, approached and demanded that we be taken to an officer. The German agreed, called another guard to take his place and led us out to the main road, about 50 yards away. There we were greeted by the most awe inspiring sight I have ever seen.
It was the famous German mechanised column entering the city.
You may have seen photographs of a Panzer column. But you haven’t seen the endless stretch of it. You haven’t seen its speed - roaring down the road at 40 miles an hour. German tanks with officers standing upright in the turrets, sweeping the landscape with binoculars. Mean little whippet tanks. Armoured cars with machine-gunners peering out through the slits. Motorised anti-aircraft cannon with their barrels upward pointed and crews ready for action. Armoured touring cars with ranks of alert soldiers stiffly pointing rifles. Guns of every calibre, on pneumatic tyres or caterpillars. Motor boats and rubber rafts mounted on wheels; fire engines; camouflaged trucks loaded with petrol - all ready at the first hint of resistance to disperse across the fields and take up positions of defence or attack. Overhead were reconnaissance planes.
Near where we were standing the French had thrown a pitiful wooden barricade across the road, which the column had mowed down like matchsticks: nothing yet invented by man, you felt with a shock of despair, could possibly withstand this inhuman monster which had already flattened half of Europe.
Our German guard waved to a stop an officer driving an armoured car. He pulled up at the side of the road, leapt down with his hand on his pistol-holder and after a long cold regard, like a naturalist observing some strange new species, asked in good French why we had presumed to stop him.
I replied that we were American ambulance drivers seeking permission to return with wounded civilians to our headquarters in Beauvais. The officer’s answer was to hustle us into his armoured car. He roared up the road with the rest of the column.
The odds are pretty high that we were the first non-Germans ever to ride in a Panzer column. But I wasn’t thinking of this now. I was thinking that we were prisoners of the most ruthless army in history, bound none of us knew where.
The men of this division were all in their early ‘20’s, amazingly fine-looking specimens. They gave, both now and later when we talked to some of them, the impression of knowing exactly what they were doing and of doing it with precision, force and speed, unhindered by any scruple. One example of their efficiency was that the drivers, at the first entrance, were perfectly familiar with the streets of Amiens. We learned later of a more impressive example: all the men of each unit belonged to the same blood group, so that transfusions could be made in the field without the delay of blood tests. Their marching songs, as we heard them later, were so written that the beat of the music aided the rhythm of breathing, thus alleviating fatigue. Their officers were only a few years older than the privates; the pre-Hitler veterans were given less important posts, with the second column. Obviously, this advance guard was the cream of the army - fresh and confident and ruthless.
We pulled up soon outside a big French farmhouse which had been taken over by the general in command and were led inside. Lying on the floor was the owner of the farm, shot through the stomach but still alive.
The general was a broad-shouldered, tough, six-foot-three mountain of Prussian efficiency. He listened to us with polite impatience. But either our French or the general’s was not too good, because he took us for American doctors and scribbled an order that we were to be placed in charge of the Chateaudun hospital, which we were to put in scrupulous order for use as a “German-American” hospital. We were despatched at once, under guard with our first patient, the wounded farmer.
The Germans had already begun to gather up wounded and deliver them to the hospital. Every one of them was tagged, like an express package, with the time, place and nature of his wound, and with details of his field-treatment.
Where were we to begin? We had had no food since a sandwich the day before and no sleep since the night before that. But there had been an all-too-obvious “or else” in the general’s voice when he gave his order. I applied to a German guard who took me to a line-up of French prisoners and let me pick as many as we needed to help us. We set to work at once.
Our patients at this point were all civilians. The single sign we had seen of military resistance to the Germans was a pair of “seventy-fives” drawn on either side of the road, with two dead French gunners lying beside each.
At about eight o’clock that night the Germans told us that a battle had been fought on the outskirts of the city, and that we were expected to bring in the casualties. Then assigned a driver to take us out to the battlefield in a captured truck. It was a real battlefield. Fortunately it was too dark to get the full effect. A company of young Tommies had attacked the main column of the mechanised Germans. Like mosquitoes attacking a locomotive - and been wiped out. Amongst all the dead and terribly wounded British, we didn’t come across a single German casualty; if there had been any, they had already been removed to maintain morale. The story was current that Germans who fell were at once flown back to Germany to hide them from their own comrades.
Tired as we were that night, we hardly slept. The French, realising a little too late that Amiens was a lost city, kept up a continual artillery bombardment, and soon after dawn a German officer woke us with the laconic information that there were some more Englischer to bring in from the outskirts of the city. This time we could see the carnage in daylight. Two companies of British, protecting the line of retreat, had been surprised by the Panzer column. The thing which incensed me about the battlefield - while a choking feeling rose in my throat - was its resemblance to the old paintings of battlefields I had seen. Under a hot, cloudless sky lay a wide field of high grass, simply covered with the English dead and wounded, and wounded and dead cattle. The British boys had been massacred by the tanks, as they had no artillery, only a few light machine guns to supplement their rifles - about as effective against a tank’s armour as a pea-shooter. Their only hope had been to score a lucky hit through a gun slit. Here as last night we didn’t find a single dead or wounded German. Out of possibly 300 British, we picked up maybe 25 or 30. The rest had all been killed. Many of the wounded had been run down by tanks, their bodies flattened like pancakes. Others, caught by the cross machine-gun fire of the encircling tanks, had been almost cut in two before they fell. Every fourth or fifth bullet from these guns is a tracer which burns through the body like a white-hot poker.
It was hard to locate all the wounded in the high grass; the hot sun was overhead when we got the last of them up, and I don’t have to remind you what that means in a battlefield. I must admit that the Germans were of great help to us getting these boys in, and helping them over their bad moments with water and cigarettes. Even the Germans must have been impressed by the fact that not a single one of the Tommies, no matter how badly hurt, was ever heard to whimper. “Very brave,” one of the Germans remarked to me, “but very, very stupid.”
I happened to be wearing a pair of fine leather gloves at this time and, as I was loading one of the Tommies on to my stretcher, a German officer, taking me for a Britisher, came up behind me and grabbed the glove off one of my hands, muttering a scornful: “Englisch.” Without thinking, I angrily grabbed it back. In the fraction of a second, his revolver was denting my stomach. I pointed to the American Field Service band on my arm and explained: “Amerikanisch.” The officer sprang to attention, saluted me, shook my hand and walked off.
This was almost the only time my nationality was treated with anything more serious than an amused contempt. The Germans seemed to consider our President an innocuous windbag. And often, to our, “Amerikanisch” their answer was, “Ah - we never see any of you - on our side.”
The morale of our few British continually amazed us. Never a whimper while they lay desperately wounded, without water or proper medicine, with guns firing and shells exploding almost within spitting distance of where they lay and everywhere that unforgettable smell of gangrene. I remember one in particular: Captain Cook of the Royal Sussex. He had lain on the field for two days, and when I picked him up his right arm was so riddled with bullets that I was afraid it would drop off. Finally, it came his turn in the operating room; but there were no stretchers to carry him upstairs. So he walked, with his good arm thrown over my shoulder. We passed a group of French soldiers complaining about all the things there were to complain of in our sad excuse for a hospital. Captain Cook gave them a withering look and said to me, in a clear voice: “What are we expected to do - sail our English fleet right up the bloody Seine to cheer these chaps up?”
Nor shall I ever forget the remarks of another desperately wounded Britisher, who had been mown down by a tank. When I asked him his opinion of the German Panzer columns he said “Beautiful to watch, but terrible to receive.”
References: In their own words...