|Germany, looking towards Belgium, October 2009. Google Earth|
Horst climbed up the front of the tank, popped the radio position's hatch and slid into his seat. As he did so Norbert turned to him, "Etwas?"
Mopping the moisture off his face, Horst turned to Norbert, "Nein, nichts. The tracks look and feel fine."
"Ah, probably just the mud on the roads."
Horst was about to say something nasty to Norbert when the commander's hatch opened and the lieutenant dropped into his seat. "Get ready Norbert, when the artillery begins, start the engine."
Unternehmen Wacht am Rhein was beginning, the Germans were throwing two Panzerarmeen, the 5th under Manteuffel and the 6th under Dietrich, and the infantry-heavy 7th Army under Brandenberger, at the war-weary U.S. First Army under Courtney Hodges. The 7th would secure the southern flank while the 5th and 6th drove towards the Meuse River and then beyond to Antwerp. If all went well, Bradley's 12th Army Group would be separated from Montgomery's 21st Army Group, the supplies coming through Antwerp would be cut off and perhaps, just perhaps, the Americans and the British would make peace with Hitler. Then Germany could concentrate on driving back the Red Army which was nearing the borders of the Reich in the East. Hitler's plan would save Germany.
The weather was terrible. Rain and snow, low temperatures, low cloud, fog, the Allied air forces were grounded. The terrible devastation which had rained down on German ground forces since D-Day would be halted, the panzers would advance, the Allies defeated, Germany saved.
Seventy-two years ago today, the Nazis launched their last gasp in the West. The British and the Americans figured the war was over, the Germans had nothing left. Eisenhower and Montgomery had a standing bet that the war would be over by Christmas. "Ike", who earlier in the war bet "Monty" £5 that the Allies would be in Berlin by Christmas of 1944, lost his bet. Over 30,000 men (on both sides) would lose their lives. Upwards of 200,000 men would be killed, wounded or go missing. Approximately 3,000 civilians would die.
The war was nowhere close to being over in December of 1944. Thousands more would die, Germany would lie in ruins, the Russians would lose thousands of men in their assault on Berlin before Hitler shot himself and the Germans surrendered. The Battle of the Bulge may have actually shortened the war. The men and equipment lost in the snow and fog of the Ardennes were irreplaceable. If Hitler had not launched this gamble, this last throw of the dice, the war may have lasted well past May.
When I was stationed in Germany we lived not that far from where the battle took place. (Under that blue dot pointed to by the big red arrow on the map below.)
Can't imagine doing that same route in a Jeep or a Kübelwagen. Oh, those vehicles could handle the snow, but a canvas top, no insulation and no doubt an indifferent heater? Kind of brutal I would think, especially with people shooting at you and things blowing up around you.
A couple of Air Force buddies and I went to the Ardennes on the 17th of December back in '98. We got an early start and hit as many highlights of the battle area as we could. Krinkelt-Rocherath, Baugnez (site of the Malmedy Massacre 54 years before the very day we got there, we just missed a memorial service for those who died in the Massacre, the Belgians don't forget), Stavelot, Stoumont, St. Vith, Spa, Houffalize, Bastogne, we really made it a full day! Coolest thing was when we crossed back into Germany, seeing the dragon's teeth of the Westwall (what is often, mistakenly, called the Siegfried Line) was quite a shock. Designed to delay a motorized enemy, they were minimally effective. But in many places, they're still there. Too expensive to dig up I reckon.
|Dragon's Teeth (Source)|
It's always fascinating to walk the ground where great events took place. Wanting to share the experience with The Naviguessor, I took him down there on a rainy, cold day in late-December. Poor kid, he was still exhausted from flying back to Germany from the States. It was his first time home since he left for college in August. While I reveled in the sights, he slept. Can't say I blame him.
But the weather that day was cold, wet, and foggy. Just like it had been those many years before...
Jack Kirby was miserable. Riding in the back of an open "Deuce and a Half" with his squad mates, he was freezing his butt off. During the early days of the Bulge, his outfit had been pushed back 20 miles. His buddy Ted was missing in action, though Jack was sure Ted had been killed when their position had been overrun. But the captain said, "No body, no KIA, he could be a prisoner, ya never know."
Now they were crossing the old battlefield, covered with a foot of snow now, chasing the retreating Germans. But my Lord was he cold. Damned Krauts, why don't they just quit? Ah well, Jack thought, this has to end soon, the Krauts are beat, they just don't know it. What old Jack has to do is keep his head down in the meantime. Mama Kirby didn't raise no fool.
The truck jerked to a stop, interrupting Jack's daydreaming. Looking around he saw guys dismounting from some of the other trucks, just as he thought about lighting a cigarette, the Sarge got down from the cab and yelled, "Alright you jokers, take five, take a leak, smoke 'em if ya got 'em. Stretch your legs while you can!"
As Jack wandered over into a small stand of trees to relieve himself, he saw something just past the trees. Looking around a bit, he was pretty sure that he wasn't too far from where he and Ted were dug in, back when the Bulge began.
Buttoning himself back up, he started to light his cigarette when he noticed that just over a little rise was a knocked out Kraut tank. He didn't recognize it as first as the turret had been blown completely off the hull. Damn, looks like a freaking Panther, those are some bad ass tanks. But not this one.
Wandering over, he brushed some snow off the side of the turret, "Hhmm, 312, I guess somebody fixed these bastards but good. Freaking Krauts!"
Jack rejoined his buddies, the convoy moved on. On the 12th of March, not far from Remagen, Corporal John "Jack" Kirby was killed in action by a direct hit on the vehicle he was driving. The vehicle was hit by an 88mm anti-tank gun firing from a bunker a half mile away. His body was never recovered.
Private First Class Theodore "Ted" Kasperek was liberated from a POW camp near Sagan, in what is now Poland. Ted died at the age of 87. He often thought of his old buddy Jack.
In 1974, two hikers found human remains near a pile of rusted metal, the man thought they looked like links from a bulldozer track. The remains were reported to the authorities in Bütgenbach. The police came out, determined that the remains were from the war and from various artifacts nearby, they determined that the remains were German.
Unknown to those who visit the old war cemetery, Horst Krebs and Norbert Dietz lie buried together, after lying out in the elements for thirty years, not far from the tank they went into battle in. Precisely fifteen minutes after the opening barrage of Wacht am Rhein had ended, Panther 312 had rolled into the open and threw a track.
As Norbert was yelling at Horst, the lieutenant bellowed at them to shut up. Thus distracted, the lieutenant never saw the sole American anti-tank gun just fifty yards away. As the fog lifted for just a moment, the crew of that gun had just happened to have their piece pointed directly at the German tank rolling out of the mist.
Their first, and only round, 3-inch (76.2 mm) armor-piercing, struck the Panther right at the base of the turret. The round was deflected slightly and slammed straight into the Panther's ammunition stowage. The subsequent explosion blew the turret off the tank, throwing it 50 yards from the hull.
As the American crew reloaded, another Panther, 313, mowed them down with it's bow machine gun. Panther 313 was destroyed by a British Typhoon fighter bomber ten days later. On the day after Christmas.
Etwas - anything
Nein - no
Nichts - nothing
Panzerarmeen - tank armies
Unternehmen Wacht am Rhein- Operation "Watch on the Rhine"
Panzer - literally "armor," what the Germans called their tanks. Oddly enough, it's also what the British called their tanks during Desert Storm.