The Ardennes

On the morning of December 16, 1944 the US Army held the Ardennes Forest with a thin screen line of green units and exhausted units being brought back up to strength.

Through the morning fog came the spearhead of a massive German counteroffensive, designed to blunt the Allied drive toward Germany, and eventually recapture Antwerp, hopefully destroying one or more Allied field armies, and buying time for future German weapon systems to be brought into the fight.

While some units were initially overwhelmed, and the bonds of the Anglo-American alliance were sometimes sorely tested, eventually the US Army rallied, regained the initiative, stymied the enemy drive, and heaped thousands upon thousands of casualties upon the Germans when they could least afford them.

The Ardennes, commonly known as  the Battle of the Bulge, remains the largest battle the US Army has ever fought.

The official Army history of the battle has some of the most moving portrayals of men in battle you will ever read.

Bastogne Historical Marker in danger?

Reader Mike from the Netherlands sent us a tip that the American Historical Marker in Bastogne may be in danger, due to drawdowns in the Belgian Army.

Important American Historical Marker at Bastogne to be bulldozed ?

As you may already understand, the Belgian Army is, once again, facing drastic financial cutbacks over the next few years.  Despite the substantial number of closings that have been effected in the past, a new wave of shut-downs for other Army Bases will soon become a reality.

Sadly, this information will quite likely pass with little fanfare or publicity through media, as it is the norm for our times.  And it is my fear that people may miss one of the most tragic details these actions would include:   The closing of Bastogne’s Army Base and the most important Historical Marker of the defense of Bastogne by the 101st Airborne Division and attached units in World War II.

The Army Base was the 101st Airborne Headquarters during the siege at the end of December 1944.  This base was, indeed, the Headquarters where General McAuliffe responded with his historical message to the Germans’ demand for surrender: “NUTS.”

Any Screaming Eagles out there?

It’s bad enough our European allies are unwilling to spend money on their own defense.

I’ll say this, Belgium (and the Dutch) have done good work in memorializing and recognizing the sacrifices young Americans made to end fascism and free their peoples from the yoke of Nazi tyranny. But the ranks of those who survived and immediately benefitted from that are thinning, just as the ranks of our own World War II vets are rapidly diminishing. Will the Benelux nations continue to remember? I suspect so, and I certainly hope so.

Bastogne, of course, was the site of one of the key engagements of the Battle of the Bulge. The Ardennes Counteroffensive remains the largest battle in the history of the US Army, and certainly deserves to be remembered and memorialized.

The Battle of the Bulge

Seventy years ago today, the Wehrmacht of Nazi Germany launched the Ardennes Counter-offensive. Germany, being pushed back to its borders on both the Eastern and Western Fronts, was on the ropes. The massive Soviet armies were poised to strike into the heart of Germany, while in the west, the Allies had only two major obstacles to overcome before reaching the industrial Ruhr and Saar.

Hitler still saw the Soviets as the greater threat (reasonably enough). He reasoned that if he could split the British and American allies, he could either buy enough time to shore up the Eastern Front, or conceivably bring the British and Americans to the peace table. A delusion, to be sure, but that was the vision that informed his thinking.

Even with massive numbers, the Allies in the West couldn’t be strong everywhere. And so, accepting an operational risk, the Allies, pausing before their next attacks, decided to hold the Ardennes forest with only the lightest screen of troops, mostly green units in need of some experience, and depleted units still reconstituting after the trials of the Huertgen forest and other battles.

In great secrecy, the Germans managed to build a massive force for the attack.  From north to south, the 6th Panzer Army, the 5th Panzer Army, and the 7th Army were to attack through the heavily forested Ardennes, cross the Meuse River, and swing north to capture the critical logistical port of Antwerp. Denied the flow of material through Antwerp, at best the Allies would be stalled until spring. At worst, they might suffer a political rift and seek a separate peace.

Armchair historians are fond of pointing out that the Allies should not have been surprised by the German choice of the point of attack. Indeed, the Germans had attacked through the Ardennes in 1940 to envelop the French and unhinge their defense.

And while the Allies did twig to a coming German counterattack, they guessed wrongly as to German intentions. The Allies best guess was that the Germans would launch a spoiling attack against the northern arm of the Allies, namely against Montgomery’s 21st Army Group, to forestall his next planned offensive.

But there were good reasons why the Allies were willing to accept risk in the Ardennes. First, it’s a forest. It has a very limited road network. It was poor terrain for a mechanized offensive, whether for the Allies heading east, or the Germans heading west. And while the Germans had been able to move fairly rapidly through the Ardennes in the spring of 1940, with fair weather, they faced atrocious weather conditions in the winter of 1944. The choice to attack in bad weather was deliberate, as Allied tactical airpower was grounded. But that also meant the road conditions were so bad that German forces, already relatively lacking in mobility, were even less capable of rapid movement.

And the Germans, who had recently expertly used forests as stout defenses, soon learned that American soldiers too could capitalize on them to hold up rapid movement.

And Eisenhower, Bradley, Hodges and Patton, who had spent twenty years between the wars studying and planning a war of maneuver, realized the key concept of a penetration of lines. If you can hold the shoulders of a penetration, you can halt it. Any penetration that overextends itself without reducing the shoulders invites being cut off and destroyed. And the greater mobility of the Allied armies convinced them that they could respond to any attack fast enough to both reinforce the shoulders and to blunt the main thrust.

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There are many, many valid criticisms of the Allied response to the German attack. Poor communication, disunity in command, being caught off guard. The failure to actually cut off and destroy the Germans once the thrust had been halted.

But at the end of the offensive, the Germans never even reached the Meuse, let alone Antwerp. For all the massive efforts, all they had gained was some trees.

The Germans losses were particularly troublesome. They suffered about 100,0o0 casualties. And every casualty they suffered in the Ardennes was a man not available to man the Siegfried Line, a defense where they might have inflicted even greater losses on the Allies. As far as Bradley and Patton were concerned, the farther west they killed a German, the better.

The Battle of the Bulge was the largest battle of the war for the US Army, indeed in its history. Over 600,000 men fought the battle, and 19,000 were killed, with 47,0000 wounded, and another 23,000 missing or captured. Some of the most desperate, bitter fighting in history occurred at the Losheim Gap, Eisenborn Ridge, Bastogne, St. Vith, and scores of other sleepy villages.

An entire Green Book is devoted to the history of the Battle of the Bulge, and makes some of the most compelling reading of the history of the entire war. You can read it here online or download it as a pdf.

The courage and fortitude of the average American soldier in the battle shines honor upon the nation and the service. Seldom have such feats of arms been equaled.

A Camera Lost for 70 Years Gives a Glimpse Into the Battle of the Bulge.

Cameras are ubiquitous today.  We’ve all grown somewhat accustomed to seeing combat footage from Iraq and Afghanistan, often taken by the soldiers themselves. 70 years ago, that wasn’t quite the case. There were some cameras, but not many, and film was hard to come by.

U.S. Navy Captain Mark Anderson and his historian friend Jean Muller were out with metal detectors, scavenging around Luxembourg, where the most heated firefights of The Battle of the Bulge took place.

While traveling through the hilly forest that once served as a brutal battleground, the pair came across an empty foxhole, and inside of that foxhole they found the personal possessions of an American soldier, left untouched for almost three-quarters of a century.

Among those possessions was a camera with a partially-exposed roll of film still inside.

The Battle of the Bulge was the largest battle in the history of the US Army, and much of it was fought with an intensity that would rival any other. The Army would suffer 19,000 Killed in Action, over 47,000 wounded, and 23,000 captured or missing. One soldier, first listed as Missing in Action, was later listed as Killed in Action when his remains were recovered.

And it was Louis J. Archambeau’s camera that CAPT Anderson found.

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The handful of images may be in poor condition, but they clearly show the discomfort and tension of that awful battlefield.

H/T to Jennifer Holik for sharing this on facebook.

The Battle of the Bulge

In Western Europe, the Allied Forces had routed the Nazis in France, destroying two armies and opening the way to the German frontier. British and US troops were slowed more by lack of supplies than German resistance. After the breakout in Normandy, the Army dashed across France and the Low Countries, only wheezing to a stop at the German border.  Just as soon as the logistical tail could catch up, the columns of tanks, infantry and artillery would finish off the the feldgrau Wehrmacht. The Nazis were on the brink of collapse. Everyone knew it. It was only a matter of months, weeks, days…

But on the morning of December  16, 1944, a bitterly cold, foggy day saw a truly massive German counterattack against the weakest point of the Allied lines. The Ardennes forest was held by a tissue thin layer of troops. Green units that hadn’t heard a shot in anger, and units bled white in other battles were more  a string of outposts than any sort of defense. 

The Germans had amassed an incredible three field armies for the counteroffensive. Extraordinary security measures had kept Allied intelligence in the dark. The Allies knew reserves were being built, but failed to grasp the scale and the likely avenue of attack. Instead, the Allies though only strong local counterattacks were likely, and those were expected in the north.

The German aim was to split the Allied front,  cross the Meuse river, and roll onto the vital port of Antwerp, the key logistical hub of the Allies.  Having split the British and the Americans, the Germans intended to defeat them in detail, buying time in the West to focus on the Russians in the East.

The Ardennes had several times before been the favored German route of attack to the west.  Armchair strategists have long criticized American generals for the weak defense of this sector. But the enormous frontage covered across Europe, and the relatively small numbers of troops available meant the US and British couldn’t be strong everywhere. The decision to leave a light screen across the Ardennes forest was a risk, but it was a calculated one.

The appalling weather of December 16 meant a key component of Allied strength would be absent. Low clouds, fog and snow meant Allied airpower was grounded. Indeed, a forecast of bad weather was a key factor in the German timing of the attack.

When the Germans slammed into the American lines, some units were simply overrun. Others melted away in panic, and others fought doggedly if ultimately futilely.  Casualties and confusion were the order of the day. It took Allied leadership time to first grasp the scale of the assault, and then to tamp down incipient panic.  If the Army’s nose was badly bloodied, there had been no knockout punch.

Hitler, who had crafted the plan almost singlehandedly, had visions of victorious troops slicing their way through the lines to victory in the West. But like most Hitlerean plans, the Ardennes offensive had grave flaws. The US Army in the Ardennes in 1944, thin as it was, was far more agile and mobile than the French forces the Germans had steamrolled in 1940. And even without airpower, those forces had far more firepower than the French of 1940. Further, for the most part, the US forces were a well trained, well blooded force, stubborn and with an esprit de corps the French could only dream of.  And terrain too played its part. The very thing that made the Ardennes an attractive avenue of attack also made it a poor one. The Ardennes was lightly held because it was just a forest, with little infrastructure or industry, and an extremely poor road network. The Germans had three armies for the assault, but in reality, only fragments of each could be fed into battle at any one time. Without holding the hubs of the few road networks in the region, such as at Bastogne, the bulk of the German forces would spend the offensive sitting idly, useless as if they’d never been gathered.

Recognizing this, the Allies moved heaven and earth to hold key towns and roads. The Battle of Bastogne, memorialized in books and movies, has come to symbolize the Battle of the Bulge. The intersection of five main roads made Bastogne, an otherwise unremarkable town, the center of the world’s attention in December 1944. Troops from the 101st Airborne, and a hodgepodge of other divisions, cut off, surrounded, and under constant attack by overwhelming German forces seemed ripe for the picking. Urged by the German commander to surrender his hopeless position, Brigadier General Anthony McAuliffe, the senior American in the town, gave the most memorable reply –“Nuts!”

Eventually, Patton’s Third Army, lead by future Chief of Staff Creighton Abrams and his 37th Armor, would relieve the siege of Bastogne. And eventually, the Americans would halt the German penetration, and attack to regain the initiative.  Countless German soldiers who could have been used to defend the Western Wall or the far bank of the Rhine, were instead caught in the open in Belgium. German losses mounted, and mounted again. The war wouldn’t be over in weeks or days, but the loss of so many troops did mean that the Germans would collapse in months.

The Battle of the Bulge remains to this day the largest battle in the history of the United States Army. Countless stories of valor and struggle came from it. Legends and traditions that inspire to this day arose from the battle.  Sleepy villages across bucolic regions of the Benelux today were, 68 years ago, the scene of some of the most epic struggles in the history of warfare.

The Army has a nice website with more information and pictures.

Classic Reading – Company Commander

Craig again at the keyboard.

I often find myself re-reading the better volumes in my library of military history, considering some works as “classics” in the genre.  One of those I’m in the process of re-reading is Company Commander by Charles B. MacDonald.

MacDonald wrote the book as a combat memoir of his service in the last eight months of the war in Europe.  As such he covers at a small unit level three major phases in the American effort in northwest Europe – stalemate along the Siegfried Line, the Battle of the Bulge, and final drive in to Germany.  When first arriving at the front, MacDonald commanded I Company, 23rd Infantry Regiment, in 2nd Infantry Division.  After recovering from a wound suffered in the Battle of the Bulge, he took command of G Company in the same regiment.  He wrote Company Commander shortly after World War II, as his first major publication.

The book appears on most professional development reading lists for good reason.  What stands out in MacDonald’s writing is his evolution as a combat leader.  Early in the book, he tells of his fears in a frank manner – shaking from fear, and being aware of that fear showing through in his voice.  For his first operational mission he wrote, with emphasis, talking to himself:

Be calm.  Be business-like.  This is the same as maneuvers.  Give some orders.  Start things moving.  you’re going to have a look at the German Army.

MacDonald took over a veteran company.  In fact, veteran is actually an understatement, as the regiment had seen action from the Normandy Peninsula across France to the Siegfried Line.  As a new company commander MacDonald sought to inspire confidence, but grappled with his own inexperience:

I must give these men confidence in me despite the fact that they know I’m inexperienced….  I must keep that confidence.  I must!  I must!

“Scared, Captain?” Sergeant Savage asked.

“A little,” I admitted.  I took a long, slow drag on my cigarette.

“We all are,” Savage said.  “We always are.”

In the first chapters of the book, MacDonald depicts the wearisome duty along the line.  The narrative discusses day-to-day action defending a relatively inactive sector, with occasional enemy probes, artillery bombardments, or other harassing fires.  Particularly well accounted are the relief operations as MacDonald’s company rotated into or out of the line.

MacDonald spends several pages recounting the confusion in the opening hours and days of the Battle of the Bulge.  The 2nd Infantry Division maneuvered onto the northern shoulder of the German penetration on December 16-17, 1944.  There, MacDonald’s company played a key role delaying the German advance, buying time for the division to secure a better position along Elsenborn Ridge.  For those who have not read the book, I will not act the spoiler.  But one of the men attached from the support company to MacDonald’s, Richard E. Cowan, received the Medal of Honor by holding his position against near impossible odds.  MacDonald received the Silver Star for his own actions. But readers do not hear much of that.  MacDonald proudly noted accolades from his regimental commander – “Nice work, Mac.”

A few days later, MacDonald received a wound to his leg.  Not until March did he return to the regiment, and then reassigned to Company G.  Arriving near the Remagen Bridge area, soon MacDonald led the company over the Rhine and back into action.  The narrative continues through a series of offensive movements against crumbling German defenses; followed by non-tactical movements to other sectors; where the company again moves forward against weakened defenses.  The combat actions stand out as interesting tactical vignettes on their own.  MacDonald provides, again in rather frank language, the factors weighing on his decisions and his thought process.

MacDonald concludes the book describing the celebration on V-E Day in Czechoslovakia, accompanied by a young woman shouting “Dobri! Dobri!”

I suddenly realized that i could light a cigarette once again in the open and not be afraid of drawing enemy fire, and it did it.  It was a simple thing, but it gave me a wonderful feeling that life was worth living again.

In my humble opinion, what makes Company Commander a classic is the narrative tightly focused at the company level.  MacDonald rarely discusses the “big picture” and never plays up his role as more than an average company commander doing the job.  He could have inserted pages upon pages of background information, explaining the strategic and operational settings.  As the author or co-author of many histories (Many readers will recall Time for Trumpets, perhaps MacDonald’s best known work) of the campaigns in which he fought, MacDonald had the credentials to do so.

But he didn’t.  Instead he provides one of the best combat memoirs of World War II.  Nearly every page offers a quote worth remembering or some story to recall:

I called for a repeat of the barrage, and when battalion said “Roger,” I knew we had won.