The Clay Pigeons of St. Lô by Glover Johns
The Clay Pigeons of St. Lô, Glover Johns (Stackpole Press, 2002, pb)
The US 29th Division landed on Omaha Beach on June 6 1944. Its three infantry regiments, each consisting of three battalions, headed toward the cross-roads city of St. Lô, some 20 miles inland. Along the way, on June 14, Major Glover Johns took command of the 115th Regiment’s 900-man First Battalion, replacing a man who was removed for insufficient aggressiveness. On June 17 the division arrived at the village of Bois de Brêtel, where German resistance brought it to a stand-still, about 3 miles short of its target city. On July 11 it resumed its drive, finally capturing St. Lô on July 18, more than a month behind schedule. The campaign cost many casualties and much destruction.
A few years after the war, then-Colonel Johns, with the help of several of his surviving fellow-officers, wrote an account of the battalion’s fighting between the Bois de Brêtel and St. Lô. It was published in 1958 under the title, The Clay Pigeons of St. Lô. (A clay pigeon is an inanimate projectile used as a target for gun sportsmen to shoot at. A war correspondent present at the liberation of St. Lô used the term “Indestructible Clay Pigeons” to describe the First Battalion, 115th Regiment.)
The story is built around a battalion command post and the individuals in the platoons and companies composing the battalion. It tells of the commander’s efforts to interpret orders issued from rear-area senior officers into practical objectives for soldiers on the front, the critical importance of battlefield communications, and the anguish of a man who must make life-and-death decisions for others nearly every minute of every day. It tells how hedgerow battles were fought, against elite German paratroop soldiers. It deals with real drama in combat– “suspense, excitement, elation, disappointment, fear, sorrow, and chagrin”– during an advance that lasted 30 days, over a distance that can today be walked in a few hours.
The Clay Pigeons of St. Lô was re-issued in paperback by Stackpole Books in 2002, with a new Foreword by Joseph Balkoski. The latter states that Clay Pigeons greatly influenced his writing of Beyond the Beachhead: The 29th Infantry Division in Normandy. Balkoski’s book provides an excellent context for the story of Clay Pigeons, which unfortunately has no maps and provides no “big picture” setting.
The book review above was originally published in a feature titled “Book Notes”, published in the March, 2012 edition of Amitié, the newsletter of Normandy Allies, Inc. This note was written by Walter Ford Carter, member of the Normandy Allies Board and the team that leads its history-study experience each summer. Walter, the son of Captain Elmer Norval Carter, a US Army battalion surgeon in the 29th Division who was killed in action on June 17 1944, is the author of No Greater Sacrifice, No Greater Love: A Son’s Journey to Normandy.