Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Cold And Drizzle

Panzergrenadier of SS Kampfgruppe Hansen in action during clashes in Poteau (Belgium) against Task Force Myers, 18 December 1944.
(Still image from captured German film.)
November and December in the Ardennes tends to be wet, foggy, and cold. The cold cuts right through you as the wind sweeps across the clearings and over the many ridges and hills. The sun comes up late and sets early, the days are short and, in a word, gloomy.

It is a hilly place, with stands of trees separated by open fields, with the occasional village, which is oft no more than a few houses clustered around a crossroads. The roads are many, mostly paved but winding, there are very few straight roads in this corner of the world. In 1944 there were no what we might call "major" highways through the area.

Weather in the Northern Ardennes, December 1944
Date    Summary
16th    Very low clouds and fog patches. Visibility poor. Light rain.
17th    Overcast with intermittent rain. Visibility 3 to 5 miles.
18th    Overcast with light intermittent rain. Visibility 2 to 6 miles. Also, fog patches in the southern sector.
19th    Foggy conditions all day. Visibility less than 100 yards.
20th    Foggy all day. Visibility less than 100 yards.
21st    Foggy all day. Visibility less than 100 yards.
22nd    Overcast from 300 to 500 feet, with light intermittent rain and snow. Visibility 500 to 1000 yards, reduced to less than 100 yards in precipitation.
(Not much different from my travels through that area at similar times of the year. Saw a lot of snow in the region as well.)

In the early hours of the 16th of December 1944 the American troops in the area huddled in their shelters, foxholes, and dugouts and dreamed of home. Their leaders believed that the war in Europe was coming to a close. The Germans were defeated, their armies were composed of old men and young boys now, only supply problems prevented the final push to the Rhine.

It was called the Ghost Front, new units were sent in to gain some experience in the field, battered and worn out units were sent here to rest and recuperate. No one expected anything of note to occur in this backwater of the war.

Over the last few days, the troops reported engine noises from the "other side of the hill," the experienced veterans insisted that they heard tanks and trucks over there, something was up. The intelligence officers (with one exception) told everyone not to worry, the Germans had nothing left. The engine noises were probably just units shuffling in and out of the line. "Don't worry about it."

So the troops huddled in their shelters, foxholes, and dugouts and tried to stay warm and dry. Catching sleep when they could, praying that the damn Krauts would just quit so everyone could go home.

Before sunrise, German artillery crews stood by their pieces, lanyards taut, awaiting the order to unleash Hell on the unsuspecting "Amis*." All along the Ghost Front, at the appointed hour, over 1,600 pieces of artillery opened fire on the American lines.

After 90 minutes of bombardment, artificial moonlight, searchlight batteries aimed at the low clouds and reflecting back to earth, lit the way in some places as three German armies, the 6th Panzerarmee, 5th Panzerarmeeand 7th Armee lurched out of the fog and slammed into the American positions.

Some units folded almost immediately, stunned by the artillery and then overwhelmed by German infantry and armor. Those who could fled to the rear, those who could not surrendered. Some units stood their ground and fired back with everything they had.

The tight German timetable began to unravel on the very first day.

The plan was predicated on rapid movement and seizing of key objectives on the morning of the first day, everything which was to follow depended on it. As always, no plan survives contact with the enemy.

Here an American reconnaissance platoon held out against overwhelming odds. In another place a German commander was fearful of advancing without armored support. In many places the Germans were discovering that the roads were just too narrow for their heavy equipment.
Jagdpanzer IV in Ambush Camouflage Pattern, Belgium 1944 (Note the fog and the mud!)

Elements of SS Kampfgruppe Peiper near St Vith, Belgium December 1944. (Looks cold...)

Fallschirmjäger riding a Königstiger of SS Kampfgruppe Peiper, early in the Bulge
American prisoners of war marching to the rear as the Germans advance. Snow can be seen on the hills. 
Young Waffen SS trooper of SS Kampfgruppe Hansen
(Still image from captured German film.)
The area of SS Kampfgruppe Peiper's operations. I have traveled extensively through this area, in December of '98. (Google Maps)

Overall map of the battle area . I traveled through this area a lot back in the day, from Wiltz to Kerkrade and Brussels to Spangdahlem. (Google Maps)

A 7th Armored Division antitank gun covers the approach on a road to Belgium (12/23/44)--Railroad crossing near Vielsalm, Belgium. (Source)
Members of the 630th Tank Destroyer Battalion, Company "B", who lost their vehicles during advancement to Belgium, take Infantry positions on a hill covering an approach in Wiltz, Bastogne, Belgium (12/20/44) (Source)
Battery C, 702nd TD Battalion, 2nd Armored Division, tank destroyer on dug-in ramp has plenty of elevation to hurl shells at long range enemy targets across the Roer River. L-r: Sgt. Earl F. Scholz, Pvt. George E. Van Horne, and Pfc. Samuel R. Marcum. US Ninth Army. (16 Dec 1944). (Source)
British tanks move to support their infantry during the Battle of the Bulge. (Source)

U.S. troops examining a knocked out Pzkw V, Panther near Hotton, Belgium (Source)
Another Juvat favorite, a knocked out Pzkw IV. (Source)

Before it was over, 89,500 Americans, 1,408 British and 67,200 to 125,000 Germans were killed, wounded or went missing. Over 3,000 civilians died, some intentionally murdered by the Germans. You cannot visit a cemetery in the Ardennes without seeing a gravestone marked, fusillé par les Allemands with one of two date ranges underneath, 1914-1918 or 1940-1945. That area of the world is no stranger to warfare.

Seventy-one years ago today, the last major offensive in the West began.






* Amis, German slang for Americans, pronounced "Ah-mees" 

18 comments:

  1. I was gonna mention the Bulge novel "Runner" by Milar Larsen, (Lance Jensen), then had a suspicion I might have mentioned that before. Sho nuff, last December. Didn't take long for the planet to whiz around the sun this year, did it?

    Superb post, and thanks.

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    Replies
    1. And I still haven't read it!

      Can't believe another year passed so quickly.

      Thanks Shaun.

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  2. My Uncle Dan was at the Bulge. His tank had thrown a tire off a road wheel, so they got out, padlocked the hatches, and started walking to a nearby Belgian village, to find a field phone, to have someone brin them a new road wheel. They entered from the West, and the Germans entered from the East. He spent the rest of December hiding in Belgian basements. He got trench foot so bad, that he could not get his feet soaked afterwards. Ironically, Uncle Dan was a large anmal vet in civil life, so he had to make sure he had his Wellingtons in the car, always, as 1940's farm yards were mud to a large extent.
    Uncle Dan would not talk about it, so what I know I learned from my Dad's sister, my Aunt Bev, Dan's wife, and my Grandma Olson.

    The rest of the Olsons served at sea. Uncle Darrel was a Hellcat driver. Dad's cousin Francis went down on the Albacore. We owe those men.

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    Replies
    1. Great story Scott.

      This nation owes a huge debt to those men.

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  3. The AT Gun at the crossroads was an M-1 3" AT Gun. Ian Hogg described it as perhaps the finest AT Gun of WWII, firing perhaps the worst ammo.

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    1. Ian Hogg, now there's a name I haven't heard in a long time. I recall that he authored a number of books in Ballantine's series of WWII illustrated books (many of which I have, somewhere...). From his bio on Wikipedia -

      Ian V. Hogg enlisted in the Royal Artillery of the British Army in April 1945. During World War II he served in Europe and in eastern Asia. After the war he remained in the military. In the early 1950s, he served in the Korean War. Altogether he served in the military for 27 years. Upon retiring in 1972, he held the appointment of Master Gunner at the Royal Military College of Science, where he taught on the subjects of firearms, artillery, and their ammunition and use. Hogg also had an interest in the subject of fortification and was one of the founding members of the Fortress Study Group in 1975.

      I am saddened to see that he passed away in 2002.

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    2. I was saddened as well, he is one of the authors I would have liked to have met.

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    3. No doubt there are more. A number of my favorite fiction authors have passed in the past few years, not that old either.

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  4. The Army probably has to be the least romantic branch of the military.

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    Replies
    1. The least romantic of the services...

      ...and the most necessary.

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  5. Hard to imagine the suffering that went on there. An uncle was just to the North of that area. Said even for a Rocky Mountain man it was, "A damn cold winter".

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    Replies
    1. The winter of '44 is remembered by many as an exceptionally cold one.

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  6. My Dad was there as an Army Medic. I never really got to know him as he died
    right after I turned two. He never told many stories of that time to my Mom
    but after hearing a few of the ones he did tell, it was really bad! War sucks!!

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    Replies
    1. Didn't know that Russ, your Dad and many of his generation went through Hell that winter.

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    2. Russ, my Dad was also there as an Army Medic. His unit was around Malmedy for he talked of going past the field the bodies were in after it was retaken. I bought him a copy of nearly every WWII book written over 20 years or so. I asked him what he thought of Band of Brothers, he just said it was pretty much the same experiences he had. He and his 'brothers' held annual reunions until they were no longer able to travel and the numbers were down to just a few. He never talked much about actual experiences.

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  7. My Dad was a Company CO with the 442nd Rgt, 42nd "Rainbow" Inf Div in the bulge area in 44/45. I asked him once what it was like and he replied: "Son, until you've spent six days and seven nights in a foxhole in Northern Germany dec-Jan with two feet of snow on the ground, and with a freezing rain with your feet covered in six inches of ice-water all the while under constant heavy arty bombardment you haven't lived." LOL, it was at THAT moment I knew my desire to enter the AF was the right one! :)

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    Replies
    1. The 42nd is a good unit with an auspicious history.

      Had an uncle (infantry) in the 63rd Div with Patch in the ETO and a great-uncle (infantry) in the 4th ID who was wounded in the Battle of Hürtgen Forest. Both spoke of wet/freezing foxholes, artillery fire, and bad chow.

      Yeah, choosing the Air Force was a no brainer.

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