Wednesday, January 20, 2021

In Winter's Grip


Major Jürgen von Lüttwitz lowered his field glasses and sighed. The small Belgian village of Losheimergraben was, to all intents and purposes, gone. A few hollow shells of the buildings which had stood there on the 16th of December and a field of bomb craters were all that was left. There would be no succor for the survivors of Kampfgruppe (mot) von Lüttwitz there.

"It's about 3 and a half kilometers to Losheim, though it's probably in the same condition as this." Leutnant Manfred Sauer knew the area without having to consult his map. They had been through here before, traveling from Stadtkyll, via Kronenburg and Hallschlag, to Losheim in the days leading up to the offensive. Of course, then they had been in halftracks and trucks, now they would be on foot. Once to Losheim they had another thirteen kilometers to Stadtkyll, where they could reasonably expect some semblance of a supply depot.

"I doubt the men can tolerate another night march in these conditions. But it's that or starve I suppose. Do we have any rations left Spieß?" von Lüttwitz asked of his first sergeant, Hauptfeldwebel Klaus-Peter Keller.

"Nothing Sir. Only what the men may or may not have on their persons. We tell them to conserve, but..."

"Yes, when a man is hungry, his thoughts don't get farther than his stomach." von Lüttwitz realized that they had to keep moving. From the looks of the clouds and the way the air smelled, he was sure that more snow was on the way.

U.S. Army Photo

"Diego, this is Johnny Chapman, he's just out of hospital and the Army saw fit to assign him to us, he was over in the 18th before he was hit. I'm assigning him to your squad, he'll be your assistant squad leader, that brings you up to seven guys now, right?" S/Sgt Jack Wilson explained to newly promoted Sgt. Diego Pena, who was replacing Sgt. Greg Jenkins who had been killed not long ago.

"No problem Top, I wanna change the luck of 2nd Squad, adding a new guy might do the trick. Even if he is from the 18th." Pena grinned as he said that, nudging Chapman as he did so.

"Yeah, I reckon I can teach you guys a thing or two. Maybe." Chapman gave as good as he got, Wilson liked the way he was starting to fit in. As the new platoon sergeant, that would make his life that much easier.

"All right fellas, saddle up. Wish I could say we were riding, but we're gonna have to walk a piece before we link up with our new tank buddies." 2nd Lt. Stephen Hernandez had walked up from company while Wilson was getting the platoon ready to move.

"We linking up with the armor again, L.T.?" Wilson asked. He liked working with the tankers, the big beasts made the Krauts nervous and was easier on the men having that kind of firepower on hand. Not to mention getting to ride instead of walk.

"Yup, we're meeting up with a platoon of tanks from 7th Armored. We're pushing on to Büllingen and eventually to Losheimergraben. Intel says the Krauts are falling back, but they're fighting hard to keep us from collapsing their entire front." Hernandez explained.

"I heard a rumor that the Krauts were attacking down around Strasbourg, where are these guys getting all their troops from anyway?" Pena asked that question, he had buddies in Patch's 7th Army in that area.

"Probably stripped the Eastern Front to make these attacks," Hernandez had been talking with the battalion S-2 that morning, "of course, once the Russians get off their asses and attack, the Krauts are going to regret trying us on here in Belgium. Robbing Peter to pay Paul is the way I see it."

"Dumb asses." Chapman chimed in. "What made them think they could take on all of Europe and the United States?"

"Who knows, above my pay grade, now let's get going, shall we?"

The men had grumbled when they had passed through the ruin of Losheimergraben. They had hoped to find provisions and shelter at the very least, but there was no sign of the mighty German Wehrmacht to be seen.

"You'd think that the Kettenhunde would have a checkpoint here. But there's nothing and no one!" Gefreiter Johannes Hautzig, assistant squad leader of the machine gun squad momentarily lost his temper. He was exhausted beyond belief and he and his men hadn't eaten anything in three days.

"They were here Johannes, look in that ditch." Unteroffizier Manfred Klügmann, Hautzig's squad leader gestured toward the crossroads ahead.

Hautzig recognized the wreck of a Zundapp motorcycle and sidecar, complete with a frozen corpse in the sidecar and another body close by. From the looks of it they had been strafed and killed right here. They probably had been the sole checkpoint in this little village.

"Ja, Feldpolizei, you can see the one dead guy is wearing a gorget, the other probably is too. But he's face down and I'm not going to pry his frozen ass out of that ditch." Grenadier Markus Klopfer laughed as he said that. These men had seen enough to haunt their dreams for the rest of their lives, only their dark humor kept them going.

"Move it along fellows, we can laugh it up in Losheim, if there's anything left of it." Leutnant Sauer was near the rear of the column, keeping the men moving, trying to bolster their spirits and keep them marching.

The heavy snow made marching a real chore. Visibility could be measured in centimeters, and the wind was just enough to keep their faces turned to the east. It pushed at their backs, seemingly to push them out of Belgium as fast as it could. But the dark skies and wind driven snow kept the Jabos away. And that was a blessing.

U.S. Army Photo

Sgt. Woodrow Sherman was riding the lead tank in the column. He was with their newly promoted lieutenant and his radioman, along with Charlie Gammell, the sniper, one of the messengers and two of the basic duty privates. Eight men was a little crowded, but if one had a good spot, you were out of the wind and kept somewhat warm by the other guys around you. Sherman had a good spot.

So far they had not seen any living Germans. Smashed trucks, the occasional burnt out tank or halftrack, and quite a few dead men. There were spots along the trip where it looked like the Germans had marched in platoon formation right into American machine gun fire.

"Hey Woody!" Pvt. Irving Dixon nudged Sherman and pointed, "Remember how the dead always looked kinda pale and grey during the summer, notice how these guys all have reddish faces, almost like mahogany? I wonder why that is."

2nd Lt. Hernandez leaned over and yelled, "It's the cold that does that, instead of the blood draining away from their faces, it freezes under the skin."

Dixon and Sherman looked at each other, how did Hernandez know all these things? Neither man knew that Hernandez, who had been born Esteban, not Stephen, was from the Pyrenees mountains of Spain, a place his family had fled from during the Spanish Civil War when Hernandez was 16. He had seen dead men in the high mountains in winter, with that peculiar reddish cast to their skin. He had asked his father about it, which is how he knew the answer to Dixon's question.

As Hernandez turned back to his front, he spotted movement ahead, men in the road, hands raised in surrender.

Hernandez had the tank platoon commander stop and deploy while his own infantry took up positions as well, they had heard stories of Germans pretending to surrender then throwing grenades at their captors. He would be careful that that didn't happen to his platoon.

"Judd, cover 'em, anybody moves funny or too quick, gun 'em all."

"Got ya Top!" Sgt. Judd Maxwell of the platoon's attached .30 cal machine gun team still tended to refer to Hernandez by his old title. A lot of the men did, Hernandez had only been an officer for a few days now.

Sgt. Stump Gentile and his squad were ordered forward to collect the surrendering Germans, all of whom looked thoroughly miserable and completely defeated.

"Jesus Sarge, look at these bastards, how did they conquer most of Europe?" Pfc. Franklin Barnett asked the question as he aimed his B.A.R. at the Germans, ready to pull the trigger at a moment's notice.

"Well, Frank, I figure they were a lot better fed back then, watch 'em. Hey you, Fritz, get those f**king hands up! Hände hoch!" Gentile had seen one man start to drop his hands, the muzzle of Gentile's Garand convinced the German that that was a bad idea.

Stump realized that these Germans had no fight in them, from their uniforms they looked like Luftwaffe troops. When they'd marched the prisoners back to their skirmish line, Sgt. Melvin Katz was there with the lieutenant. He wasted no time interrogating the Germans.

"Well Top, the sergeant here says they're with the 3rd Fallschirmjäger Division, they haven't eaten in over a week, he claims they've been holed up waiting for the SS to leave so that they could surrender. The sergeant's a tough old bastard but look at his men, f**king kids." Katz then spoke to the German sergeant again, who answered immediately.

"He says that the SS pulled out a couple of days ago, on foot. Apparently they've been withdrawn for rest and reequipping before being sent east. The sergeant here says his boys have seen enough."

"Okay, John," Hernandez said, turning to his radioman, Cpl. John Myerson, "get on the radio, we need a truck to take these guys to the rear. Cat, tell the Kraut to stay right here, someone will be along to collect him and his troops. Also tell him that if they wander off, they'll probably get shot. No one is real keen on taking prisoners right now."

Katz told the German the lieutenant's instructions, though the man looked dejected, he agreed that he and his men would wait here to be collected.

As the platoon remounted the tanks, Hernandez noted that the men had given some of their rations to the Germans. Damn, he thought, we go from killing them one day, to helping them the next.

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  1. This is not looking good for Sauer, he might get run over, while herding his men. Do you think von Luttwitz's men have any panzerfausts? They would be heavy to haul around, and kind of awkward. They already dumped everything in the carts, to haul the injured.

    1. They didn't dump everything in all of the carts. They are now far enough from the fighting front where their only real problems are from Allied air and overzealous Feldgendarmerie.

  2. Made me shivver just looking at these pics and reading your descriptions. At least frozen corpses, while often grotesque, don't decompose and stink up the area. And there was plenty of fighting in eastern France (Strasbourg) and Alsace when the Nazis launched operation Nordwind....big tank battle in Hatten and Rittershoffen.

    1. Good article, your link didn't work, this one does:

  3. I had not thought about the corpses in the cold. I do not that I ever had a reason to, I suppose. Just another pleasant factoid to store away for trivia night.

    I am now wondering how far Luttwitz gets before surrendering or capture.

    1. They are approaching "safety" - a relative concept for the Germans in 1945.

  4. Interesting reading at that first photo, hard fighting during the worst winter in years in Europe. Excellent post Sarge with a unique twist of how cold affects the aftermath of combat. Huh, down to four above right now here.

    1. Some of the places I get photos from have excellent accounts.

  5. I could feel the bite of the wind, looking at those trucks chained up. Snow stuck to your clothes... And sitting on metal in cold like that will wick your heat away so fast. Heck, just touching it painful... Brrrr....

    1. Sitting on metal in the cold, been there, done that!

  6. Hey AFSarge;

    I remember us capturing a bunch of Iraqi's during Desert Storm, the guys were starving, we went through our MRE's looking for stuff that didn't have pork in it and giving it to them, man they went through that stuff like a shark through a surfer. When you made that comment "from trying to kill them one minute to trying to help them the next, it reminded me of that....Funny how things goes.... Once they got good and fed, we had to keep the republican guard that was a small group of them separated from the rest of them because according to our kuwauti "Terps" they were starting to exhort the others to do their duty to Saddam and rush us and kill us and take our stuff and escape. We were outnumbered 10 to one Got Dicey until the Tanks showed up. Once the M1's from 8thID whistled calmed them right down until the MP's hustled them off. Still gives me the chills, LOL

    1. The Republican Guard, Saddam's SS.

    2. Awful nice, Mr. G to be so culturally sensitive. Wonder how important halal is if someone is truly hungry.
      Every evil empire has a "SS".
      Boat Guy

    3. Depends on how observant one is.

    4. We were trying to be decent human beings....Why be a dick if it wasn't necessary

  7. Cold is bad enough. Cold and your big guts eating your little guts? That has to totally suck.

    Excellent descriptions of cold weather experiences.

    It's all over now, except for the dying. You see the same thing in the last winter campaign of the Civil War. The Union pushing hard, the South trying desperate things to try to eck out a stalemate, a return to status quo, or something, anything. Meanwhile starvation and the cold are eating at both sides.

  8. I’ve said it before but I am amazed at your research Sarge.

    Where did you find out the effects of cold on bodies?

    And those Germans who surrendered – I wonder in those conditions how many ended up being shot just because they were inconvenient? On both sides?

    Always check here to see if there is a new chapter for the day.

    1. The thing with the bodies, I'd noticed it before in pictures of the Winter War in 1940 between Finland and Russia. But I learned the reason for that in Antony Beevor's book on the Battle of the Bulge.

  9. How were our supplies? Did we have enough to feed our troops and the POWs? Probably wanted to feed them enough to survive, but not enough to have much strength.

    1. Supplies continued to flow throughout the battle. Things got dicey in Bastogne because they were surrounded for a time, but overall the supply situation on the Allied side was more than sufficient. Even to feed POWs.


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