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.)
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
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 Panzerarmee, and 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"