Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Die Wacht am Rhein

Elements of Kampfgruppe Peiper advancing in the Ardennes
(United States Army Center of Military History)
At 0530, on the 16th of December, 1944, in the quiet, fog-shrouded hills along the German-Belgian border, the early morning stillness was shattered by incoming fire from 1600 artillery pieces and 955 rocket launchers. The Germans were coming.

The American lines were shattered and confused. This was supposed to be a quiet sector of the front. A place for used up units to recuperate and for green units new to Europe to get a little taste of war.

Three German armies, two Panzer and one infantry lurched out of the forests on the German side of the frontier to give those green units their taste of war. They got more than a taste, the Battle of the Bulge, Hitler's last throw of the dice in the West, was beginning.

Seventy years ago today, the German 5th and 6th Panzerarmeen and the 7th Armee rolled out of the fog and mist and slammed into the lightly held American line in that area of Belgium and Luxembourg known as the Ardennes. A place once thought to be impassable to armor, which the Germans had disproved in 1940 and were about to disprove again. Difficult for armor yes. Impassable? No.Thousands of American GIs, British Tommies and German Landsers were killed and wounded. Thousands of innocent Belgian civilians lost their lives as well. Many murdered by units of the Waffen SS.

Die Wacht am Rhein (The Watch or Guard on the Rhine) is the title of a German patriotic anthem. It was also the German code name for the Ardennes offensive, chosen deliberately to make the Allies think that the Germans were preparing to defend the Rhine. Not attempt to counter-attack in the Ardennes.

The German goal was to drive a wedge between General Omar Bradley's 12th Army Group (which was posted in and south of the Ardennes) and Field Marshal Montgomery's 21st Army Group (north of the Ardennes). After a hole had been punched in the Allied line, the Panzer spearheads were to drive on to Antwerp and cut the 21st Army Group's supply lines.

On paper the plan looked very good. However, the German generals knew that they did not have the necessary strength to make that happen. Most of them felt that reaching the Meuse River was stretching their limited capabilities. But der Führer was insistent. So the attack was planned and the attack was launched.

Google Maps

Back in December of 1998, two of my fellow sergeants approached me about taking a little field trip down to the Ardennes, on or about the actual start date of the battle. The 16th was on a Wednesday, the middle of the work week, so we couldn't swing it that day (for one reason or another). We were able to convince our immediate superiors that we could be spared from our critical NATO duties on the 17th, a Thursday.

So we got up very early on Thursday (well before sunrise) and headed off to Belgium. The following map shows our initial path.

From Geilenkirchen, Germany to Krinkelt, Belgium. About 53 miles.
(Google Maps)

At the border between Germany and Belgium, we stopped at a small crossroads, marked on many maps as the Wahlerscheid Crossroads. Just before the Bulge, the 2nd Infantry Division had been attacking towards that area. The next photo (taken in weather completely different from December of 1944) shows the area of the crossroads from just inside the Belgian border.

Google Street View

To the left in the photo is a feature common to this area, a firebreak. When you have large tracts of forest, you also get forest fires. So, firebreaks. The narrow road is also typical of roads in the Ardennes. This road did have a hard surface in 1944, though I doubt it was in this condition. (Another odd thing, may mean nothing. But go to Google Maps, zoom out to the 100 mile scale and then grab the little street view guy. Top left, in orange on the zoom scale. Grab him and drag him over the map. Notice anything odd about Germany? But, you guessed it, I digress.)

Our first planned stop on the journey was in the twin villages of Krinkelt and Rocherath, near the town center is a memorial to the American 99th Division.

99th Division vehicles moving through Wirtzfeld en route to Elsenborn. Vehicle in foreground belongs to Service Battery, 372nd Field Artillery Battalion. To the right, an M10 tank destroyer covers the column's movement.
US Army Center For Military History)

99th Infantry Division Patch

We paused there, to pay our respects to the men who had gone before. Something we would do many times that day.

The road to Büllingen
(Google Street View)

I remember the view on that road above, the day we were there was overcast. It was not really the mental picture I had of this particular area of the Ardennes. It almost seems like good tank country, but winding roads, muddy fields and long vehicle columns do not make rapid movement very easy. In fact, many accounts of the battle talk about the long columns of German vehicles. Long traffic jams were the norm on the first day of the offensive. Having been there, I can see why.

After some more driving we came to the Baugnez crossroads. To many folks that name does not ring any bells, perhaps because the event which took place there, on 17 December 1944 takes its name from the larger town of Malmedy, not quite a mile north of Baugnez.

Aftermath of the Malmedy Massacre
Public Domain (S)

For reasons which may never really be understood (according to some) on Sunday, 17 December 1944, elements of Kampfgruppe Peiper, an armor-heavy detachment of the 1st SS Panzerdivision came across elements of B Battery of the American 285th Field Artillery Observation Battalion negotiating a turn which would take the column to St. Vith.

The SS troops opened fire. destroying the first and last vehicles in the convoy, trapping the remainder. These GIs, with few other options and no means of effectively fighting armored vehicles, surrendered. 
While the German column led by Peiper continued on the road toward Ligneuville, the American prisoners were taken to a field, joined with others captured by the SS earlier in the day. Most of the testimonies provided by the survivors state that about 120 men were gathered in the field. For reasons that remain unclear today, the SS troops suddenly fired on their prisoners with machine guns. (W)
Eighty-four bodies were recovered in January of 1945 when American forces recaptured the area. In addition to these murders, Kampfgruppe Peiper was thought to be responsible for murdering 362 POWs and 111 civilians during its time in the Ardennes.

When we arrived at the memorial to the dead of Malmedy, it was apparent that a ceremony had taken place there that very morning. Fresh wreaths had been laid and as it was the anniversary of the massacre, that made perfect sense. The Belgians in the area do not forget the events of World War II.

The Malmedy Memorial, very close to where the massacre occurred.
(Google Street View)

It was sobering to stand there, now it's just a normal town, with normal people going about their business. 84 Americans lost their lives in an act of senseless violence, in a war most Germans knew was lost, on that very spot. Sobering to reflect on that even now. There is no glory in war, never has been, never will be. But against that monstrous regime the fight was necessary and justified.

Another thing which has always struck me regarding the weather in the opening days of the battle is that everyone pictures lots of snow and cold.

That came later.

American tank destroyers near Werbomont 20 Dec 44
(U.S. Army Photo)
The picture above shows weather very typical of the area in the late fall and early winter. Cold rain, lots of fog and, off the roads, lots and lots of mud.

Having lived not far north of the Ardennes, and having traveled through the Ardennes many times in all four seasons, I can vouch for the rain and the cold. Fog is also a serious problem, visibility can be reduced to yards, even feet.

I have also seen snow in the Ardennes. It is pretty when you're driving down a freshly plowed road in your nice modern car.

Try doing it in an open jeep or truck, with people shooting at you. There is no warm bed at the end of the day, unless you're a rear area type. Nope, you get to sleep in a foxhole. Again, with people trying to kill you.

Seventy years ago today, many American soldiers, some exhausted by the race across France and then the hard slog up to the German border, some brand new, barely out of training, barely off the troop ships, faced the Hell of combat roaring out of a winter's morning.

The blasts of artillery, artificial moonlight provided by searchlights reflected off the low clouds, German infantry (barely visible with their white camouflage) screaming out of the forests to the east, firing as they advanced. All in the cold and the mist.

The war was not over, not by a long shot, but on that day, though many did flee to the west, enough American GIs stood their ground and fought back. delaying the German spearheads long enough for the generals to get reinforcements moving to the front to stem the German tide.

At first many GIs died or were taken prisoner...

American POWs being taken to the rear.
Bundesarchiv Bild 183-J28619 CC

But in the end, the Germans paid a heavier price.

German soldiers who attempted to storm the 101st Airborne command post in Bastogne, Belgium, lie dead on the ground after they were mowed down by American machine gun fire. The tanks, behind which they were advancing, were knocked out also. This photo was taken while Bastogne was still under siege. (S)

German POW's captured by the U.S. 82nd Airborne division in Belgium
U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

Within six months the war in Europe would be over. But on this day, seventy years ago, it seemed that the war would never end.

Three members of an American patrol cross a snow covered Luxembourg field on a scouting mission. White bedsheets camouflage them in the snow.
Left to right: Sgt. James Storey, Newman, Ga.; Pvt. Frank A. Fox, Wilmington, Del., and Cpl. Dennis Lavanoha, Harrisville, N.Y. (30 Dec 1944). Lellig, Luxembourg. (S)


  1. Great post OAFS. Never made it there while stationed in Germany but it is on my bucket list. For those interested Charles B. MacDonald's A Time for Trumpets and Company Commander are a great place to start. I am a long time student of the battle and I 'd bet both those books are also in your library- OAFS.

    1. Both are indeed in my library. I highly recommend them.

  2. Most excellent post, Sarge! I like the juxtaposition of then and there and here and now pictures. Very well done. I also would like to visit the area someday. I've done Waterloo, Ypres and Normandy, would like to visit, Verdun as well as the Ardennes .

    1. To start to understand a battle or campaign, you need to walk the ground.

      I have done Waterloo as well, one battle which was also interesting was that of the Hürtgen Forest. (Fall of '44.) When we were stationed in Germany my grandmother asked me to go there and take some pictures as her brother (my great-uncle) had fought there with the 4th ID. Though it was a bright summer day, you could see by the terrain that it must have been Hell fighting there.

      My great-uncle's war ended in the Hürtgen Forest, he was wounded there. (Actually had an MG round go through his helmet and graze his scalp. I still have his helmet.) Oddly enough, a German colleague of mine in NATO mentioned that his Dad's war had also ended in the Hürtgen Forest. He was captured by the Americans.

      Small world.

    2. They are passing from our midst, going on to Glory.

      We must remember them always. (But you already know that WSF.)

  3. Replies
    1. I am touched.

      (No such thing as too much bacon. I like what you did here. Most clever indeed.)

    2. It's free, too, for anyone who wishes to pass it along.

  4. Thanks for the great post. My uncle Lee was killed by a mortar round just along the Noville-Bourcy road on January 15th as the 101st continued its breakout from Bastogne. Tough to be one of the last guys killed.

    1. That road is now known as the Rue de Général Desobry after William R. Desobry who, as a Major, commanded Team Desobry (20th Armored Infantry Battalion, 10th Armored Division) in and around Noville during the early stages of the Bulge. His men's stand gave the airborne time to take up positions to successfully defend Bastogne.

      Your uncle went through all that and then fell while pushing the Germans back. I trust your family will always remember him.

      I know I will. Men like your Uncle Lee gave the last full measure, I thank God we had (and still have) men like him.

  5. This season is all about celebrating the birth of Jesus, a joyous occasion to say the least. And yet,war goes on despite the time of year. Thanks for the sobering post, its good to be thankful for those who fought.

  6. Great post Sarge!

    You might enjoy this Bulge novel. Out of print but not that hard to get. The author, Lance (Frank) Jensen (pen name Milar Larsen) was a paratrooper in the Pacific in WWII.


  7. So, Sarge, you're saying the Germans might be a little shy on street view? As opposed to say the Belgians? Ve don't vant anybody to be able to navigate in our country!

    1. One could come to that conclusion, nicht wahr?


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