Friday, December 16, 2016

Die Wacht am Rhein

Germany, looking towards Belgium, October 2009. Google Earth
Jack Kirby was miserable. Born and raised in Glendale, Arizona, Jack had never seen snow until he was drafted into the Army. Now here he was, in some God-forsaken part of Belgium, patches of snow here and there, up to his butt in mud in his foxhole, with his buddy Ted snoring next to him, on watch. For what he wasn't sure, the fog was so heavy he couldn't even see the nearest tree line, which was about 400 yards away. All he could see was the water dripping from his helmet visor. The constant light drizzle was starting to drive him crazy. And it felt like it was getting colder.
Horst Krebs was grumbling to himself as he was checking the tracks of "his" Panther, number 312. Norbert, the driver, had said that the controls had felt "sloppy" during the move up to their marshaling area. "Sure, having to drive all the way up here from the railhead at Bitburg with all the muck on the roads had nothing to do with it. Must be the tracks!" Horst thought to himself. It was night, it was cold, and the drizzle was starting to feel like sleet. The red filter on his small torch was less than useful, but the lieutenant would go nuts if he exposed any light. As if the Amis could see anything in this fog!

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."
At 0530 local time, well before sunrise, over 1,600 German artillery pieces opened fire all along the 80 mile front running from Monschau in Germany to Echternach in Belgium. The roar of the artillery masked the sound of over 2,400 tanks, assault guns, and other armored vehicles starting their engines and beginning their final movement towards the jump-off point for the attack.

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.

Who knows?

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.)

While in Germany our Air Force dentist thought it would be a great opportunity for The WSO to get braces, all on Uncle Sam's dime. Only problem was that the orthodontist was in Bitburg, Which was roughly two hours away by car, and that's if you went through the Netherlands and Belgium. Which would take you right through the Ardennes. Re-entering Germany via the Schnee Eifel. Which I thought was pretty cool. Then and now. See the map below, we would follow the blue path from our little village of Waldfeucht.

Google Maps
The Ardennes is beautiful in the summer, the rolling hills, the forests, it can be quite breathtaking. The winter is beautiful as well, one winter there was a foot of fresh snow on the ground as we drove through the area around St. Vith. Snow still heavy on the evergreens, the fields and villages looked like a Christmas card. Of course, that was riding in a nice warm modern car with excellent handling capabilities in the snow.

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.
Now that the front was far away and the weather was easing off, the Graves Registration teams were collecting the dead. Near the town of Bütgenbach they found a wrecked Panther tank, only three of the five man crew were still with the vehicle. They were trucked off and buried in a common grave with other "unknowns."

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.


  1. Mrs Eula Pierce was my fifth grade teacher. Her brother lost his toes to frostbite in Bastogne. He was in a foxhole the whole time, wrapped in rags to try and stay warm. He didn't like Germans the rest of his life for the loss of use of his feet.

    When he returned to the US, they wanted to travel to see him. I remember they had an A sticker, and couldn't buy enough gas to make it. They siphoned some out of a delivery truck, left a note explaining what and why, as well as some money to pay for what they'd stolen.

    I wonder what life stories fifth grade teachers tell now?

    1. Damn, she sounds like one heck of a woman. She and her brother were from a generation who knew that it took work to make a living and sacrifice to defend freedom.

      My uncle was an infantryman in the 63rd Infantry Division with Patch's 7th Army. Bronze Star, Purple Heart, he hated the Germans until the day he died. Understandable in many ways.

    2. STxAR: They tell of the harrowing times they saw the name "Trump" scribbled in chalk inside their "safe spaces". Horrors!

  2. Thank you for a great and timely post.

    Paul L. Quandt

  3. Another great post Sarge- Juvat was correct, you are on a roll. The references to the personal part of the war: Tank 312, Ted living while Jack died- reminiscent of Mrs. Tuchman. The Battle of the Bulge is special to me as my Dad (Combat Infantry Squad Leader- Bronze Star, Purple Heart) was part of the Patton relief effort. From comments that Dad made I think that the Bulge was a key event that made him forevermore swear off camping in the winter. V/R

    1. Being very familiar with the battle (and the area it took place in) I can appreciate your Dad's aversion to camping out in the winter. Third Army did some amazing things in December of '44, turning their axis of advance by 90 degrees, in the dead of winter, against some stiff opposition. Anyone who served in WWII has my admiration, but I have to admit to a bit of hero worship when it comes to Third Army, from Patton on down.

  4. My father's oldest brother was there. Ended the war in Koblenz. When he talked about it, he dwelled on the cold and confusion.
    When the fighting stopped, he spent several more months with the occupying forces. That tempered his feelings towards Germans, seeing the civilians suffering.

    1. My Dad was in the Berlin Brigade from '46 to '49. He liked the Germans much better than his older brother.

      As for me, I love the Germans these days. Good people, lots of fun, great beer!

  5. Great post, including the follow up...

  6. My cousin's future father-in-law was a 1LT Platoon Leader in the 101st defending Bastogne. The 1LT very possibly crossed paths with his future son-in-law's father, a mech inf company commander in the vanguard of Patton's 3rd Army coming to relieve Bastogne. As an after story, my uncle, the mech inf company commander, a lawyer by trade before the war, wounded during the relief, sent to England to recuperate, promoted to Major, and spent the remainder of the war as the OIC of Eisenhower's map room. regards, Alemaster


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