Devil's Guard, by George Robert Elford

Possibly the world's most popular inclination, the impulse to export your suffering to another seems to be near-universal. Not confined to any race, sex, or age category, the impulse to cause pain appears to well up from deep inside human beings. This is mysterious, because no one seems to enjoy pain when it is inflicted on them. Go figure.

Re: Devil's Guard, by George Robert Elford

Postby admin » Fri Jan 12, 2018 6:01 am

17. THE RED HIGHWAY (OPERATION "DELUGE")

The battalion was camped for the fifth day, but the downpour did not seem to lessen. It was raining without a break; the hours of daylight shortened and deep in the jungle between the thickly forested hills the hours of darkness stretched to almost eleven hours. A wicked wind blew from the southeast, tearing at our flimsy lean-to shelters and driving the heavy drops through our fatigues and underwear.

Cooking was out of question and our tobacco turned into a soggy mess that could not be lit. Since the rain started our diet had consisted of dried fish, biscuits, and vitamin pills. The only fire which we were able to light was burning inside a shallow crevice, barely large enough to accommodate the girls. There we prepared boiled sweet potatoes, rice with curried fish, and occasionally a cup of tea for the girls and for Xuey, who was down with fever and abdominal pain.

Sergeant Zeisl suspected appendicitis, a condition which in the circumstances was a death sentence. Our faithful little Indochinese companion knew it too and he accepted the inevitable with a faint ironic smile saying: "We all have to go one day. Just let me go without much pain." I sat beside him for a long time under the tarpaulin sheet which the men had rigged up between the trees to make a primitive tent.

"You have reached your objective," Xuey said, giving my hand a feeble squeeze, "but you will have to be very careful from now on. A hundred times more careful than ever before. Those down there are professionals." He turned his face slightly toward the steaming valley. "They overlook nothing." Even now he only thought of our welfare. Then he asked for some sleeping pills and Zeisl obliged.

The densely wooded plateau where we had established ourselves, for better or worse, was the only place where the streams, now swollen to rivers, wouldn't flood us. Throughout the night we heard the crashings of uprooted trees and the distant thud of tumbling rocks and earth. During the day, the entire world seemed to be moving downward, along the slopes, into the valley.

Barely two miles away, in a narrow valley, was an important terrorist supply base, "a king's ransom" as Schulze put it. A twelve-foot-wide jungle road ran through the enemy camp and into it entered a network of smaller paths. We had arrived at the long-sought "Red Highway," the main terrorist supply route between China and the southern provinces. No troops of the Foreign Legion had ever before come closer to it than a hundred kilometers. Its existence had been suspected but never proven. Only airplanes were able to penetrate so far into the Communist rear; they had done so on many occasions but had observed nothing but unbroken jungles. Like all the important Viet Minh establishments in the hills, the Red Highway was a masterpiece of camouflage. It had been cut through the jungle without allowing as much as ten yards of it to be exposed to the skies. At a few less densely wooded sections, hundreds of trees had been roped together and drawn closer to one another with the aid of pulley-like contraptions. Then they had been fastened in such a way that their crowns intertwined over the road. In the open ravines networks of strong wire had been stretched between the slopes to support creepers, which had soon blotted out the road beneath.

The jungle road included permanent bridges, twelve to fifteen feet wide, most of them constructed a few inches underwater to fool aerial observation. Difficult or swampy sections of the road had been "paved" either with stones or with logs leveled with gravel. Along the Red Highway were checkpoints where guerrilla MP's controlled transport or troop movements. Rest-houses and service stations where carts and bicycles could be repaired also were located on that incredible network of trails. Its very existence was ridiculed by some leading French statesmen. It was simply too incredible to believe. Yet it was there!

Here the enemy was no longer taking chances. While trying to approach the camp to have a better look, Xuey and Sergeant Krebitz had had to stop short of concealed machine gun positions at eight different points. The emplacements were not easily observable, though they were not hastily dug foxholes but what one may rightly call permanent fortifications. Small blockhouses, constructed of heavy logs, covered with earth in which shrubs had then been planted, commanded all the approaches to the Viet Minh base. Along the relatively short section of the jungle road which Xuey had been able to investigate, he spotted two Viet Minh observation platforms. Rigged up high on the hilltop trees, the platforms offered a perfect view of the neighborhood. The guerrilla lookouts could spot not only airplanes but also any overland intruders who imprudently proceeded across the nearby ridges.

The base must have been only one of many similar bases established along the Red Highway. It included permanent huts where the arriving troops or coolies could rest for a while before resuming their long walk south.

Despite the difficult approach, Krebitz had identified nine storage shelters which contained hundreds of bulky bales, jute bags, and wooden crates. He had also observed brisk traffic in the area. Viet Minh units arrived or departed at about six-hour intervals, even at nighttime. Among them were armed troops and coolies who drove heavily laden bullock carts or pushed bikes. Still others transported crates suspended from long poles shouldered by four or six men.

Xuey had wanted to infiltrate the base alone. There were so many strangers in and about the place that he thought he would be in no danger while mingling with the enemy. Then the downpour had started and Xuey had come down with fever and the pain in his abdomen.

Sergeant Zeisl was sure of his diagnosis of appendicitis. "I don't think I am mistaken," he said.

"What are his chances?" Schulze wanted to know, much depressed by the unexpected calamity.

Zeisl shook his head slowly. "Without an operation— none at all, Erich. The antibiotic will slow down the infection but Xuey should be on the operating table very soon."

"How soon?"

"Within twenty-four hours at the most."

Xuey dozed off into a restless sleep and we huddled under the narrow burlap, trying to decide what to do.

"We are certainly having it all right," Riedl fumed. "And it had to happen right now. . . . What do you want to do about Xuey, Hans?" He was looking at me as though fearing my answer in advance.

"What do you want me to do, Helmut?" I asked him in turn.

He flicked away his cigarette butt and ran a nervous hand through his dripping hair. "We just can't watch the poor devil die."

"We should call for a copter," Schulze suggested.

"Call a copter?" Sergeant Krebitz chuckled. "Sharks might fly in this downpour but nothing on wings, Erich."

"Copters have no wings," he sulked. "Xuey is too good a buddy to let him die like this."

"Besides we might need him in the future," Riedl added gloomily.

I was already considering that possibility. Whether the army would be willing to risk craft and crew on such a mission remained to be seen. Besides could the pilot find us in the pouring rain with visibility almost zero?

"We are very close to the enemy base. They will hear the copter coming in," Krebitz remarked.

"No, not in this rain," Erich insisted. "You wouldn't hear a thirty-two-centimeter shell exploding two hundred yards from here."

"The rain might stop at any time."

"We could move Xuey a few miles from here and guide the copter to a safer place."

'That we might try," Krebitz agreed.

"If they will send a copter at all," I remarked.

"Colonel Houssong will send one," said Riedl. "He would never let us down."

I turned to Corporal Altreiter. "Will the radio work, Horst?"

He shrugged. "One can always try."

"Try it then____"

And so we decided to do something for Xuey that we had seldom done for our own kind....

Twenty minutes later our signals were answered and my message went through. A copter was to take off within an hour and we could expect it to arrive in three hours. I chose to transport Xuey to a barren ridge four miles away. It was a devilish undertaking in the pouring rain. The stretcher bearers had to ford swollen streams and climb slippery elevations where every instant landslides or tumbling trees threatened to wipe out the group. Eight men of Gruppe Drei volunteered for the perilous trip, and they had to start immediately if they were to reach the ridge before dark.

We agreed to transmit a steady radio beam which the copter could "ride" to within a few miles of our camp, then Sergeant Krebitz was to take over with walkie-talkies.

I wrote a short but informative report to Colonel Houssong, in German. The colonel did not understand German, but neither did the Viet Minh. If my report, written in French, fell into enemy hands the consequences would be immediate. The German text would always provide us with time to do whatever there was to be done. The guerrilla commanders had no immediate means of learning the implications of a message in German.

In this respect, however, 1 underestimated the Viet Minh. A few months later we learned that for over six months three German nationals from the Soviet Zone had been attached to the Viet Minh High Command. Their principal task was to keep track of our communications and to evaluate our activities in general. The three German Communists had often been to the field, sometimes quite close to places which we had actually attacked and badly mauled. Knowing us well, the Viet Minh had been extremely careful not to allow them into any dangerous areas but since our movements were, in most cases, unknown to the enemy, their precautionary measures had been quite useless. It was only sheer luck that prevented our treacherous "compatriots" from falling into our hands on two occasions. From the interrogation of prisoners we learned that we had missed by only three miles the turncoat camp at Muong Bo. On another occasion, they had been among the thirty-four survivors who escaped Pfirstenhammer's flamethrower attack on a small Viet Minh camp south of Cao Bang, an action in which over a hundred terrorists had perished. It would have given us immense pleasure to entertain those envoys of Walter Ulbricht. Erich nicknamed them "the ratpack of Pan-kow" and we loathed them even more than we hated the Viet Minh.

We had bad luck with our Communist counterparts but we did manage to capture a Soviet instructor in 1950; according to his papers he was Major Senganov. His interrogation led to the capture of one more Russian "adviser" and two high-ranking Chinese officers in a tunnel system two miles away. After questioning, the Chinese were shot out of hand. I was about to call for a copter to ferry our illustrious Russian guests back to Hanoi when Erich quietly remarked that we should not place Colonel Houssong and his superiors in an impossible position.

"Not even Paris," he reasoned, "can hold the Ivans and at a word from Stalin they will be given a first-class air ticket back to Moscow." Indeed, with the Berlin blockade still fresh in the postwar history, the incident could easily trigger another crisis with unforeseen consequences. "The moment the French High Command knows about the Russians, their hands will be bound by Paris and in the end we are going to pay for it," he explained. I accepted his reasoning.

We executed the Russians in a cave which Sergeant Krebitz then blasted shut. Seven months later, when we passed the place again, the fallen boulders and earth were already overgrown with vegetation, erasing all traces of the secret tomb. When told of the incident, Colonel Houssong's only comment was a relieved "Dieu merci."

"You cannot imagine what would have happened if you had brought them in," he said and requested us to erase the place from our maps—even the footpath that led to the one-time cave.

The men of Gruppe Drei improvised a stretcher and lay the dozing Xuey on it. Schulze covered him with a burlap, which he then fastened to the primitive contraption with a couple of belts. "The sedative will keep him asleep for a while," Sergeant ZeisI told me. "Let's hope he gets to Hanoi all right."

We shook hands with Sergeant Krebitz. "The hills are going to be slippery. Take care!"

"Don't worry," he replied, wiping the rain from his face. "If we cannot climb, we are going to swim them. There is enough water in the hills to float a raft between the peaks."

The party departed and we sank back under the burlap. Suoi and the girls prepared some biscuits with jam. Noy poured five cups of hot tea—a very tempting delicacy which we gently declined to accept.

"You drink it," Schulze urged the girls, nodding toward a dozen of our comrades who were sitting miserably soaked beneath the dripping trees. We never accepted a privilege that was denied to our comrades. It was rule number one of our jungle code of companionship.

"So much for Xuey's reconnaissance trip," Riedl remarked quietly, as Sergeant Krebitz and his small group disappeared into the woods. I, too, was thinking of our fat prize so temptingly close yet now so far out of reach.

Then all of a sudden Noy stood before me. "I go there, Commander," she announced resolutely. "I can do what Xuey wanted to do. . . . See camp. Thi comes with me."

"I come," Thi nodded. The two must have discussed the matter already.

Riedl protested. "That's ridiculous, Hans," he began, but lie stopped short of saying anything else. He, too, realized the importance of Noy's mission. We desperately needed information. Someone had to go and only a native Indochinese could penetrate the base.

"There are many, many women in the camp," Noy insisted. "They come and go."

"Nobody will know us not belong there," Thi added in her broken French. "We see camp and come back."

"What do you think of it, Erich?" I asked Schulze.

"I think it is quite feasible."

I turned to Noy and reached for her hand. "Do you think you will be all right, Noy?"

"Jawohl, Commander," she replied in German and smiled. "We go there, see all and come back. Then you can attack."

"It is very important for us that you do come back, Noy. Not only because of the information you might bring back but because we all like you very much and we think you belong to the battalion."

She blushed slightly, lowered her head, and said quietly, "I am doing it for Karl." She looked up and smiled. "Don't worry."

"If you overstay, I shall go and bring you back myself," Riedl stated. "Be careful."

Noy and Thi had been away for three days, and we could do nothing but hope for the best and wait for their return. The day after their departure the rain finally stopped but the sky remained overcast, and we had to keep our sodden clothes on until they dried from our own body heat. Sergeant Krebitz and his party returned muddy to the ears and dead tired—but also successful. Xuey was safely on his way to Hanoi. Schulze, who somehow always managed to keep his tobacco dry, lit a cigarette for Krebitz. "How was your trip?"

"Merde!" Krebitz grunted, puffing contentedly. "Twice we slipped into a river, performed a ski slalom with stretcher, provisions, and all down a hundred-foot slope, missed a falling boulder by inches, and almost guided the copter into a cliff. The pilot finally managed to land the thing with its left gear hanging over a precipice. The crew dumped some crates, we pushed the stretcher through the hatch; a guy grabbed your report and off they went. And just as well, because half a minute later the whole precipice began to crumble. I guess the vibration had done it. The whole works went to hell, and we barely managed to jump clear."

"A magnificent venture," Schulze grinned; reaching into his rucksack he withdrew a canteen. "You deserve an extra rum, Rudolf."

"You should see what's in the crates big daddy sent us." Krebitz gulped some rum, wiped the canteen, and handed it over to one of his troopers. 'Toss it around and don't be shy—it's on the house."

Colonel Houssong had been thoughtful enough to send us everything we were short of. The crates contained, among other items, tea, coffee, cigarettes, tobacco, jam, insect repellent, saccharin, matches, drugs, and letters. Among them were two for me, from my parents and from Lin. There is nothing more heartening than to receive*let-ters in the jungle—"a hundred miles beyond God's back," as Karl used to say. Letters from Europe, from people who lived (incredibly enough) in nice homes with beds, electric light, and bathrooms.

"Yesterday we spent a magnificent day at Bexhill-on-the-Sea," Lin wrote. "My uncle has a small plot and a trailer there. After lunch we went to the movies and saw a terrific French picture with Yves Montand, 'The Wages of Fear'; in the evening we had a garden party with barbecue. I truly hope you will visit us here one day... ."

Cities, highways, bars, cinemas—people changing their shirts twice daily, people at beach parties . . . Europe. ... I read the letters as if they brought news from another planet.

"I hope you are not living too dangerously," Lin wrote. "The news about Indochina is quite fearful. Please don't risk your own we!! being for a transient advantage that is going to be lost anyway. The newspapers here are writing that whatever you may do (or for that matter, whatever the British Tommies may achieve in the British dependencies) the future of the colonies will be decided here in Europe, or maybe in America. Don't risk your life in chasinq the shadow of a victory that cannot be yours, Hans."

How right she was. . . .

"Life is improving here," my father wrote. "There is much talk about a peace treaty which would restore Germany to her own people. Personally I believe it is only twaddle. I doubt if Stalin will ever conclude a peace treaty with us. Eighty percent of whatever Russia now has, from photo cameras to printing machines, is coming from the zone that the Russians are busy milking round the clock. Stalin will never give up his German 'cow.' Here in the west we now have enough provisions. Most of the industries have been rebuilt, also the cities and villages. Everything was financed by the Americans! Naturally not because they began to 'like' us, but for the simple reason that they need a strong buffer state between the Reds and the rest of Europe. The prosecution of the so-called 'Nazi criminals' continues. It will probably go on forever. The only change is that it is no longer the Allied Military Tribunal but German courts who prosecute and condemn. Alas, son—Germans versus Germans. Those who were slimy enough to escape prosecution themselves now prosecute the less fortunate ones. There are so many 'anti-Nazis' and 'resistance fighters' here that one should indeed wonder how Hitler ever managed to gain control of the Reich."

The letter bore a Swiss postal stamp. There was still strict censorship in Germany Most of the letters I received from home had been mailed in Switzerland. The return address was also a Swiss post office box.

But our own world now centered on an area two miles downhill—in a Viet Minh camp. We gathered to discuss our coming operation against the guerrilla establishment, and, in general, our possible undertakings along the jungle road. Much depended on the girls. Although their loyalty could not be questioned, I ordered the customary precautions immediately after their departure. The defense perimeter of our camp was drastically altered. Sentries changed positions, machine guns and flamethrowers were removed and placed elsewhere. Our supplies were moved farther uphill. I also dispatched two hundred and fifty troops to deploy higher up in the woods. Our original establishment became a ghost camp. Whatever Noy and Thi may have seen was of no consequence now. A surprise Viet Minh attack would hit only the vacant woods.

Riedl at first took my arrangement as a "personal insult," and seemed annoyed as he commented, "Noy will never betray us, Hans." I explained to him that the girls could be captured and tortured into making admissions. They could be placed under surveillance, permitted to move about the camp, only to be shadowed on the way back to us. In our position we could not take chances. Not even if those chances were one in a million.

Although we did not dare approach too close to the jungle road, my prolonged efforts to gather intelligence had not been without results. We had spent considerable time in surveying the surrounding country, and Schulze had drawn a map of the area about five miles on either side of the Red Highway. Curiously enough it was the only accurate map ever made of the district. It was truly amazing to see how the uniform landscape, indicated on the regular maps only as forested hill-tracts, resolved itself into individual hills, valleys, ravines, and streams, revealing the vital details without which it would have been very difficult to plan an attack.

Even without Noy's report we soon agreed that a direct assault on the base should not be attempted. There were too many hidden machine guns along the road and at the foot of the hills. The eight emplacements which had been spotted by Xuey and Krebitz were likely to be only a fraction of the total number of guns deployed near the Viet Minh lifeline.

The base, however, did have its Achilles' heel. Like most of the other terrorist bases in the jungle, this one, designed to accommodate several hundred people, had been constructed at a permanent water source. A small river, about twelve feet wide, ran through the compound and this became the focal point of our attention.

Erich, who had surveyed the hills farther westward, boldly suggested that we should cut the flow of the river by blasting a dam across a deep ravine further up, about a mile and a half from our jungle hideout.

From his map case, Schulze extracted a diagram and unfolded it on the ground between us. "You know that I would never insist on doing something based only on guesswork," he said. "I surveyed the ravine with Krebitz, calculating as accurately as possible without the proper instruments. We agreed that the blast should bring down enough rubble to form a block in the ravine from fourteen to sixteen meters high." He glanced up. "That is the size of a five-story building, Hans."

"Carry on."

"I believe a temporary reservoir is going to form right here." He ran his pencil across a section of his diagram. "It will be six hundred meters long and twelve meters wide. When full, the ravine could hold one hundred and twenty thousand tons of water."

"Do you think your barrage can stand the pressure?"

"I can't say that," Erich admitted, "but that's unimportant. When the pressure reaches the critical level the rubble is going to burst." He looked at me triumphantly. "Now what do you think will happen when all that water rushes downhill? It will swamp the entire rathole."

"And a long section of the road as well," Krebitz added.

"The water in the ravine flows at a rate of approximately seven tons per minute, Hans," Schulze continued. "Our reservoir should fill up within thirty-six hours. Since we intend to blast during a thunderstorm, the downpour will probably cut that time by half."

"How did you calculate that rate of seven tons per minute, Erich?" I asked, casually examining his diagram.

"It was very simple," he replied with a grin. "We built a one-meter by one-meter crate with a sliding door opening upward, sank it in the river, opened the door, and measured the seconds it took to fill."

"You did that, eh?"

"Sure, Hans. A one-by-one crate holds exactly one ton of water," he went on explanatorily. "The crate filled to capacity in six seconds. The width of the ravine could accommodate twelve similar crates—which would come to one hundred and twenty tons per minute or seven thousand and two hundred tons of water per hour and so on."

"And so on," I nodded, quite overwhelmed by Erich's rapid display of mathematics.

"What do you think of it?" he asked me.

I was actually thinking that one could not lose a war with companions like Erich Schulze. But I reserved final judgment until after I had seen the site myself.

Leaving the camp to Riedl and taking only twenty men along with Schulze and Krebitz, I set out for the hills. Schulze and his party had already cut a path to the ravine, so we traveled light. Even so it took us almost four hours to cover the five miles between the camp and the ravine.

The jungle appeared so peaceful it was hard to believe that it belonged to a ravaged country, where men had endeavored to exterminate their fellowmen for over a decade, with still no peace in sight. Now with the terrain wide open before us, Erich explained his plan again in detail. I found it plausible. Although Sergeant Krebitz hastened to emphasize that it might be some time before Schulze's plan could be realized, we remained enthusiastic about the idea. Riedl's expedition, Sergeant Krebitz reminded us, might take a week or ten days. The mining of the ravine would also require three days of hard work and when all was ready we would have to wait until a thunderstorm came.

How long that waiting would be, no one could foretell. Our dependence on the caprice of Mother Nature was the only kink in Erich's ingenious scheme. But then, we had been searching for the Red Highway for many months. And as long as our supplies lasted, we never lacked patience. I would prefer to strike a month later and preserve the lives of my men than embark on a premature attack only to suffer casualties.

Every day small three-man patrols kept the jungle road under observation. Their reports invariably said that Viet Minh units were on the move—armed guerrillas and Dang Cong coolies. Then to our immense relief the girls returned and from their excited account I deduced that the base was indeed a major one. Apart from tons of ammunition and weapons, foodstuffs enough to sustain several regiments and five hundred bicycles had also been stored there. Bicycles were the principal transport vehicles of the Viet Minh. The quantity of material which the terrorists could load onto bicycles and transport for hundreds of miles bordered on the incredible. A three-hundred- pound load on a flimsy bike was quite common for the coolies to manage. Of course they had to walk, guiding the bike by an extra long handlebar.

There were consistently five to six hundred people in the base, Noy said. Around the compound were trenches with machine guns. "You cannot get close," the little nurse insisted. "Every path is covered and the forest is mined."

For two days the girls had worked with a group of women carrying ammunition boxes into underground shelters. "We go down seventeen wooden steps into a cellar," Thi explained. "Twelve cellars full to ceiling."

I asked them about the crates and bales which we had previously observed in stored open sheds. "Many sheds have rice, salted fish in them. Others store bullets and bicycle tires," Noy stated.

The next morning Riedl and his men departed. Noy went along with Helmut. Sergeant Krebitz and fifty troops moved to the ravine and began to prepare the blasting site. Schulze, Suoi, Corporal Altreiter, and a platoon went to prepare the site where we intended to ambush the terrorist working party. Erich selected over fifty concealed positions where machine guns and flamethrowers could be deployed to our advantage, covering not only the ravine but also the escape routes.

"We are not going to wait for the pressure to burst the barrage. It would be too chancy," Sergeant Krebitz informed me two days later. Using watertight containers, Gruppe Drei planted fifty pounds of high explosive in the ravine. "The charges will be buried under the rubble," Krebitz said, "ready to blast the barrage at the right moment."

Our sojourn in the woods soon became a trial. To be on the move is relaxing but to hide in the woods so close to the enemy, keeping quiet, doing nothing but watching and waiting is exasperating. The men were terribly bored. Their activities were severely restricted. There was no loud talking, no laughing, no unnecessary walking about, for even the crackling of the dry branches could have alerted a terrorist outpost, the closest of which had been detected by Krebitz barely a mile from where we camped. Fires were naturally out and our spirit cubes were insufficient for cooking a decent meal of sweet potatoes, rice, and meat. Small hunting and fishing parties, however, were constantly making forays farther west, where the silencer-equipped rifles could be used. Game was plentiful in the area. In eight days our hunting parties bagged five boars, two deer, and over a hundred jungle fowl. We weren't choosy about our meals and consumed practically everything that moved and had flesh. Hedgehogs, monkeys, snakes, and monitor lizards also belonged to our regular diet. Reptiles, as a matter of fact, taste very good and their flesh is quite tender.

Since we could light no fires in our camp, the meals had to be prepared by the hunting parties and brought back neatly portioned and roasted. One day Sergeant Krebitz suggested that we could solve our rice and potato problems, too, by carrying the stuff two miles into the woods for cooking. Thi and Chi decided that they could be of better use if they joined the hunting parties, especially when it came to the question of preparing the meals. Thereafter we enjoyed a marked improvement in the quality of our meals—the female magic touch. The girls collected sacks of wild vegetables, which proved delicious either cooked or prepared as salad with salt and spices.

Ten days went by before Riedl and his party returned upset and decidedly empty-handed. Helmut had not only failed to get explosives from the enemy but had not been able to approach the jungle road at any favorable point without severe risk. The Red Highway was expertly protected from interference on the ground.

"By God, Hans," Helmut swore, "there are at least two thousand armed Viets with nothing else to do but sit along a twenty-mile stretch on guard duty. Whenever we found a suitable place for setting an ambush we bumped into bunkers and foxholes that covered the entire area with MG's."

It was a bitter blow but I couldn't blame Riedl for the failure. The enemy was becoming wiser. Our activities behind their lines had had their effect.

Unable to track us down and eliminate us for good, the Viet Minh decided to play it safe along their vital lifeline from China. We learned a few months later that Giap had deployed over sixty thousand guerrillas along the six-hundred- mile-long Red Highway with nothing else to do but protect it.

Riedl had acted wisely when he decided not to rush an attack that could alert the enemy and fail in the process. We all looked to Sergeant Krebitz for a solution.

"Well, Rudolf, it is all up to you now," Schulze said hopefully. "We have come a long way to do a great job. It would be a pity to turn back now."

"I cannot shit gelignite, Erich," he replied crudely.

"Can't we do something with what we have?" I asked.

Krebitz screwed up his lips and gave a low chuckle. "With what we have? We have already buried most of it in the ravine."

"Any other solution?"

"Request an air drop."

"We can't have planes coming here, and to embark on another thirty-mile expedition. . . ."

"Then I can see no other way but to strip the battalion, Hans."

"Strip it of what? Revolver bullets?"

"Hand grenades."

"Why, hell!" Erich exclaimed. "That is the solution. Everybody still carries grenades."

"Sure, but it's me who will have to rig them up piece by piece," Krebitz grunted.

"Do you think it will work, Rudolf?"

"One can always try!"

Soon Krebitz had a neat pile of over seventeen hundred grenades. "Here you are, Rudolf," Riedl exclaimed with great enthusiasm. "You have all the explosives on earth. If you need any help just say so."

"You're most welcome," said Krebitz, slapping Helmut on the shoulder. "Now all you have to do is to get your can opener, cut the shells, and scrape the candy into a rucksack. But don't blow yourself up in the process."

Three days later the ravine was set for blasting. All we needed was a thunderstorm. One finally came eleven days later and marked our thirty-third day in the woods, "sitting it out" only two miles from the Red Highway. The moment the first thunder cracked the troops began to move out to take their positions along the ravine. It did not start to rain until well in the afternoon, when lightning bolt after lightning bolt illuminated the rolling clouds. Soon it sounded as though the skies were about to split apart. Synchronized with a savage thunderbolt, Krebitz plunged the detonator lever. The roaring thunder obliterated the explosions and had we not seen the flames we would have thought the charges had misfired. The rocky precipices tumbled down, triggering a land slide which filled the river up to fifty feet high. On the far side of the barricade the water began to rise rapidly.

The following noon a scouting party of twelve guerrillas was spotted wading upstream in the now barely trickling river. It was still raining but our dam held firm. We permitted the Viet Minh party to proceed right up to the dam and then to return to base without being molested. Just as Schulze had predicted, a large working party of about four hundred men arrived the day after, carrying demolition tools and satchels of explosive. Luckily it was still raining. The downpour deadened the sound of the machine guns. Confined in the ravine the enemy had no chance of fighting back. Most of them carried no weapons, only picks and spades. When they turned to flee, Riedl and his gunners were ready for them a mile downstream.

In twenty minutes the battle was over. The afternoon went by with no signs of another Viet Minh sortie from the base. At nine P.M. our dam sprang more leaks and looked ready to collapse. To prevent an ineffective partial burst, Sergeant Krebitz decided to blast the reservoir free. Carrying tons of rocks and broken timber, the torrent rushed downhill. Still swollen fifteen feet high when it reached the jungle road, the flood hit the guerrilla base with the force of a tidal wave. It was already dark so our observers witnessed little of the actual impact of the flood, but when we focused our binoculars the next morning on the enclosure I saw nothing but piles of debris amidst a shimmering swamp.
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Re: Devil's Guard, by George Robert Elford

Postby admin » Fri Jan 12, 2018 6:02 am

18. THE LAST BATTLE (OPERATION "FIREFLY")

We left the area immediately, refraining from harassing the enemy along the road. We ignored half a dozen smaller transit camps, guerrilla checkpoints, and convoys in order to deny the Viet Minh a chance to determine our direction and our next target. A week's trekking over very difficult terrain put a good forty miles between the swamped enemy base and ourselves. Our route took us up and down across a chain of steep ridges, some of which we had to climb to the summit, past the three-thousand-foot mark. We blazed our own trails most of the time, since that was the only way to avoid a few primitive tribal settlements whose inhabitants were alien even to our girls, and whose language none of us could understand. No one knew where the loyalty of the tribesmen might lie. I thought it prudent to avoid them altogether. Had we used their comfortable hunting trails, we could have made a faster journey but we would also have met with tribal hunters whom we would have had to kill in order to remain undetected in the area. News in the jungle can travel almost as fast as a teletype message.

The battalion stuck to the unbroken woods. Hampered by thorny thickets of wiry bracken and stingy shrubs which flourished with incredible vitality, we made our way. That ten days of trekking was probably more trying than a two-hundred-mile march on an open road. Yet even in the unbroken woods we came upon a small clearing with a primitive hovel, where a young tribal woman was looking after five naked children, all ridden with festering sores. Our sudden appearance terrified her, and she burst out in a torrent of high-pitched words which not even Noy could understand. Gathering her children, she was ready to flee into the woods when the sight of our girl companions quieted her fears. With some effort and by using at least as many signs as words, Noy succeeded in making contact with a female human being from the Stone Age. Her husband had been away hunting in the woods for five days. The family lived entirely on what the forest provided. They grew nothing themselves and had not seen money for years. The woman had no idea of a war going on in the country. Occasionally she saw armed people moving along the path down in the valley, sometimes as many as ten times ten armed bandits (she explained by showing ten times her open palms). They were neither white-faced nor as tall as we were. To her all armed men were bandits (including ourselves) and the words Viet Minh, Ho Chi Minh, Hanoi, French, Foreign Legion, army, terrorists, etc., had no meaning at all.

When we arrived, the woman had been frying a jungle fowl in the green sauce of a variety of wild vegetables. She offered us a portion of the meal which we gently refused, pointing out that there were enough mouths for her to feed. Schulze presented her with a small bag of salt—something very valuable in the jungle—and a pack of tobacco for her husband.

Suoi and the nurses treated the sores of the children, the eldest of whom was only about seven years old. They cleaned their festering ulcers, and Noy gave a jar of antibiotic ointment to the woman, explaining to her that she should repeat the treatment every day for at least a week. Sergeant Zeisl donated a box of vitamin pills. It took some time until the woman understood that only one pill per child per day should be used, and that she should hide the container from the children.

She wanted to return our kindness. She led us to a narrow concealed path. Motioning for the girls and me to follow her, she descended about a hundred yards to where a small creek formed a large deep pool. It teemed with fish and the woman gestured that we should take as many as we wanted. We spent the better part of the day spearing and netting fish, for I did not want to spoil their pond by using explosive charges—our customary and much faster way of fishing. We had a splendid meal of rice with curried fish. From Krebitz's rucksack came a few small toys; each child received, something. We departed as good friends. Our hostess agreed that we were not "bandits," although it was quite obvious that she could place us in no other category of manhood. The words "army" and "soldier" had no meaning for her.

The husband had not returned before we left but the woman was not worried about him. Tribal hunters would often undertake long trips which lasted for days. In a way, I was sorry for his prolonged absence, for even by using sign language we could have obtained valuable intelligence from the man, who traveled a great deal in the area. But as the date of his return was uncertain, I decided to push on.

After three more days of tortuous going, during which we drew a distorted semicircle through the hills, we closed in once again on the Viet Minh lifeline. It ran close to the town of Muong Ham, and from there it turned sharply eastward to skirt Paksane along the Khong River. Krebitz and twelve men from Gruppe Drei discovered another large guerrilla base which, apart from regular supplies, also harbored twenty to thirty large river barges. Everything was covered with green and well hidden from air reconnaissance. Closer observation revealed that the camp was not a depot for storing barges but rather a manufacturing complex to produce them. So it was another valuable target!

Like the other base, this, too, had been erected in a spacious depression between a chain of forested hills, but here we found no river that crossed the camp, and any thought of repeating our previous coup could be discarded. A direct attack might have been successful, but it would have also been costly. Such large guerrilla establishments accommodated several hundred terrorists, and the approaches were properly defended.

We spent a couple of days surveying the neighborhood. The lower hills, immediately around the base, were all occupied by Viet Minh lookouts. The higher elevations, five to six hundred yards from the camp, were vacant Without wasting time we occupied those with sharp platoons. I was already nursing the idea of trying there an as yet unexploited ruse: A night raid by fighter bombers. I told Erich about my idea. His only comment was: "Are you having a sunstroke or something, Hans?"

Indeed the idea sounded like a. crazy one—a night attack by planes against a target that was invisible beneath the thick foliage even during the daytime. I reminded Schulze that when he came to me with his flooding scheme, I gave him a chance to convince me. He wouldn't agree with my comparison. "I came to you with all the details worked out," he protested.

"What makes you think that I haven't worked out my own details, Erich?"

"Because I think that there aren't any details to be worked out, Hans. The planes can never find the base, not even if we guide them by radio," Erich insisted.

"I have something better to guide them with than radios," I replied, inviting him to sit down. He dropped to a tree stump.

"Can you bring the planes to the target?"

"On the bull's-eye, Erich."

It was very simple. We would place heavy MG's on the dominant hills, six hundred yards around the base, and mark the target area within the convergence of tracers. To illustrate my idea, I drew a crude sketch and soon both Schulze and Krebitz agreed that it could be done. Henceforth we referred to similar actions only as "boxing in" the target. It turned out to be an entirely new concept of cooperation between a ground force and the air force —at night.

I sent a long coded report to Colonel Houssong, giving more details about the Red Highway and explaining my plan for a bombing raid. Three days later I received the go-ahead with the instructions: "Mission No. 1 of Operation Firefly will commence on Wednesday at 0200 hours."

I knew that everything would depend on the effectiveness of the on-the-spot guidance. Our only long-range transmitter would have to be set up on a hilltop twelve miles from the target area, to transmit a steady beam on which the planes could ride home. This would bring them in close enough to receive the final coordinates on the spot. It would be imprudent to use a transmitter any closer to our target.

On D-Day, Sergeant Altreiter and twenty men departed for "Hill 811" to establish the radio beam. We deployed on Hills "1022" and "1023" before sunset; Schulze and forty troops occupied the former, and I with fifty troops the latter elevation. Riedl and the rest of the men remained in the camp.

Early in the afternoon the clouds began to thicken and by five P.M. the sky was overcast. To our great relief it did not rain and although the moon remained hidden, the raid still had a fair chance of success. The enemy base lay perfectly, still and concealed beneath the jungle foliage—a dark shape that expanded into infinity. Our MG's had been sighted during the day and were now locked firmly in position. When fired, the lines of tracers would converge to "box in" the enemy camp.

The hours dragged by in tense expectation until shortly after one-thirty A.M., when we heard a faint drone which gradually resolved into the roar of approaching planes. The squadron was coming.

A few steps from where I stood our machine gunners tensed. Others were holding their signal pistols ready. Moments later the foremost planes were within range of our walkie-talkies.

"Oiseaux—Oiseaux . . . firefly on yellow Very lights. Waterfall within quadrangle . . . waterfall within quadrangle."

"Septeuil—Septeuil . . . message received. Signal time 0146. Coming in."

The Very lights shot skyward, drawing lazy semicircles over the jungle.

"Fire!"

The MG's erupted with a vicious clatter, spitting a hail of tracers over the treetops—taut lines of fire, as though burning wires were stretched between the hills. An instant later Schulze opened up from Hill 1022. His tracers converged with ours. The gunners under Krebitz joined the display. Even from our position, we could clearly see the quadrangle of steel which now enclosed the invisible Viet Minh base. It was a magnificent sight.

With engines howling at high pitch, the fighter bombers screamed over the hills. Another set of MG's took over the marking and the jungle erupted in a multitude of explosions. The first salvo of bombs went home. Demolition bombs, rockets, and napalm rained from the skies. In a few minutes the forest was an inferno.

"Septeuil—Septeuil," the squadron leader called. "Cut out the markers. It is bright enough now."

We stopped firing.

The planes came in one after another. More bombs, more rockets, more napalm. Secondary explosions began to rock the hills. Hundred-foot flames and gray smoke rose from the valley. The forest that had hidden the Viet Minh base so conveniently now became a sea of flames. Where we stood at six hundred yards away, we could read the engraved serial numbers on our guns.

The raid lasted for only twenty minutes. When the planes departed the base no longer existed. "Just give the French a chance and they will do a magnificent job," one of my gunners remarked appraisingly. "Look at that valley . . . none of their bombs went off target."

I called Schulze and Krebitz and told them to move closer to the target. Our descent was easy, as the entire hillside was now bathed in light. Along the edge of the inferno we spotted small groups of running shapes: the survivors. We approached the jungle road as close as the heat permitted us, then began to pour bullets into everything that still appeared to move, not quite knowing if our targets were fleeing terrorists, panicked animals, or only some crazily waving bushes illuminated by the fire.

We moved on, skirting the Red Highway, dealing death and destruction as we went, not knowing that those were our last weeks of glory in Indochina.

For our last battle we lost.

It was not Viet Minh guns that ended the saga of the Headhunters . . . just as it was not the Red army of Stalin which defeated the German Wehrmacht. The Wehrmacht had been defeated in the Hinterlands. We were defeated in Paris—in the Chamber of Deputies.

Having realized that they couldn't beat us in the hills, the enemy embarked on a last desperate offensive. Not only the Viet Minh but the entire Communist world joined forces to win that final and decisive battle. It was not to be fought with machine guns but with printing presses, radios, and loudspeakers—and not in the jungles of Indochina but in the capitals of the world.

"SS marauders in the French Foreign Legion massacre innocent civilians," the Communist press screamed.

"Hitler's scum at large in Indochina."

"How long will the French government tolerate?"

"Outrage! Outrage!"

And what the regiments of Ho Chi Minh could not achieve in five years the international Communist fifth column accomplished in five weeks.

We were ordered to return to Hanoi.

The consternation among the international Communist parties could be well understood. "The SS marauders" had arrived at the principal Viet Minh highway between China and Saigon. Six vital guerrilla bases had already been destroyed. In manpower and material, the Viet Minh losses were enormous. The fate of the whole "liberation" movement in the south was at stake. They had to stop us —at any price.

So the battalion was disbanded. The ranks, with time to serve, were incorporated into the various mixed units of the Foreign Legion. Those who had already "worked overtime" could choose between transfer or resignation. We resigned. We were free to leave and the world suddenly seemed wide open. Only then did it occur to us that we were French citizens, officers and honorable reservists of the Army of the Republic. Vive la Republique!

When Erich Schulze married Suoi in a civilian ceremony, he no longer needed a permis from the forces. Nor did Helmut Riedl need one to hear the happy "I do" from the little Indochinese nurse Noy.

A few weeks after our departure, Colonel Simon Houssong handed in his own resignation. Not because he was a Nazi or because his former SS marauders were embarrassing him now. The colonel was a true patriot, and we regarded him a great soldier who did not feel like becoming a member of a team which might be compelled to sign the articles of surrender. "For whatever they may call it, it will be surrender," I remember his saying. The colonel thought that France had signed enough articles of surrender—on the wrong side of the table.

The "Battalion of the Damned" had ceased to exist. It lived exactly 1,243 days, during which it destroyed 7,466 guerrillas by body count, 221 Viet Minh bases, supply dumps, and camps; it liberated three hundred and eleven military and civilian prisoners from terrorist captivity and covered roughly 11,000 kilometers on foot.

We lost 515 men—for us a very heavy loss indeed.

Once again the guns of Nguyen Giap could roll freely. The jungle trails became highways and the forts of the Foreign Legion turned into graveyards. The French soldiers could fight bravely and go down gloriously. They were not permitted to win. They had been stabbed in the back again, as they had been so many times in the past, by their own superiors, by their own government.

Seven hundred days later came Dien Bien Phu, but the Indochina war did not end there. It did not end with the fall of Hanoi and the loss of the northern territories either.

It went on. ... It is still going on. ... It will go on for a long time to come....

The End
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