Bastogne and the Bulge
- Categorized in: October 2011
Have you ever tried to resist the Devil?
If you ever did, you may notice that he likes to come at you on the same ground where he’s won victories in the past.
To that extent, (to say the least of it) he and Hitler had something in common. The Blitzkrieg of 1940 saw German forces roll up any resistance on the mainland of North-West Europe in a tidy couple of months. May and June were enough to overrun Holland and Belgium, subdue France and throw the British forces back into the North Sea. After which Britain set about training up as many young men as they could to defend the skies over England, and France sank back into a period of four years of seething bitterness under Nazi occupation.
The Battle of France
How had this happened? France had been ready. Everyone in Europe knew war was coming. Millions of French Francs, not to mention millions of tons of French steel and concrete, had been poured into the construction of the Maginot Line – the heavily fortified line of defence that stretched from the Luxembourg border in the north down to beyond the Swiss border in the south. As a deterrent against German direct attack, it was admirable. As a strategic deterrent against defeat, it was miserably ineffective.
Why? Because the Germans simply went around it.
German tanks, unstoppable once they'd penetrated the Ardennes in 1940
Hitler’s victory in the Battle of France was largely due to his surprise attack through the Ardennes Forest. From Germany through Luxembourg and Belgium and then into France. It is small wonder that he held this ground in special affection since it was here that he met with dazzling success (certainly enough to dazzle his own reason). What is more amazing is that the Allies were completely surprised a second time in exactly the same way.
Once the Allies had managed to break out from the deadlock in the hedgerows in Normandy in July ’44, the race was on. The German Army was in rout, retreating in some chaos across France and back into the Low Countries. The Allied Generals bickered and blustered in their race to be the first into Germany and onto Berlin.
But the Allied Armies’ great advantage and, in this instance, their bane was that they were heavily motorised. They could only advance as far and as fast as the supply of petrol would allow their vehicles to go. Late into the autumn of 1944, the Allies were still being supplied by petrol that arrived in Europe at the temporary ports off the Normandy beachhead. With greater and greater success as German resistance folded, this meant each gallon of petrol was travelling hundreds of kilometres before it was delivered to tanks and trucks on the frontline; a supply line which itself guzzled almost five times as much fuel as it delivered. Vehicles sat stationary by the roadside waiting. An open road to Germany ahead of them, but no fuel to get there. And so the Allied advance ground to a halt.
The Allies needed a serviceable port that could supply the frontline more efficiently. They needed Antwerp. It wasn’t until September that this port was finally liberated by the British, but even then it was already the end of November by the time it was operational. By this time, everything was solidifying. In the south, the Americans had reached the Siegfried Line and there they were held. In the north, the daring combined air and ground attack, Operation Market Garden, to open up the road over the Rhine at Arnhem and into Germany, had failed.
There would be no Christmas in Berlin. Instead, the Allies found themselves retreating in Holland, inching forward in Belgium and Luxembourg, bleeding their lines white in the Hürtgen Forest, and locked in a war of attrition along the Siegfried line that stretched south.
And the weather was getting colder and colder. In the early autumn, General Bradley had ordered the supply of winter gear to several divisions in the US Army to be cancelled in favour of loading trucks with the much more necessary petrol. He thought if only they could push on, perhaps they wouldn’t need the winter gear after all. But now winter was here, the troops were still in the line, and the cold weather gear had never arrived for many.
And it was at this point, with the Allied forces poorly equipped, undermanned, demoralised and bogged down along the entire Western Front, that Hitler launched his final offensive in the West against the weakest point in the line.
At dawn, on December 16, 1944, a huge offensive opened up across a front of more than 100km from the German town of Monschau in the north to Echternach in the south. Hitler’s objective was to puncture a hole through the front, splitting the British and the American forces, and then to push on to the port of Antwerp to knock out the Allies’ supplies. In the process, he planned to outflank and neutralise four of the Allied armies. In this position, he believed the Western Allies would be forced to negotiate a peace to the Nazis’ advantage, leaving Germany to concentrate its resources on defeating the Soviets to the east. With the successful development of a variety of secret weapons not far away, total victory would then be achievable after all.
But both his generals at the time, and historians since, thought these objectives unrealistic at best, pure fantasy at worst.
Although there was desperate fighting as the Americans were caught off guard, and the Allied High Command had to act fast to counter the threat, in many ways the Offensive was always doomed to failure, and never seriously threatened the outcome on the Western Front.
For the Germans everything hinged on speed and keeping to their tight schedule. They would have to rely on disorder amongst the Allies, continuing bad weather to avoid Allied air attacks and the successful capture of Allied fuel supplies in order to be able to push on to the coast. But even on the first day, most parts of the main attack were badly delayed by dogged opposition by the Americans. In one sector, for example, just 18 American soldiers managed to hold up an entire battalion of 500 men for the whole day.
All three of the prongs of the German attack failed although both sides suffered huge casualties. Once the Allied Commander, General Eisenhower, realised the scale of the attack, he poured in massive numbers of reinforcements to strength the line. Up to 850,000 American troops were committed to this battle, making it the biggest battle in US history. Nearly 90,000 casualties were sustained, making the Bulge its bloodiest battle of the War and, by some counts, its history.
The most famous episode during this battle was the Siege of Bastogne. This is a small town in the Ardennes region of Belgium, which straddles an important crossroads. It was of great strategic value, enabling control of the whole southern area of the Ardennes, and was one of the first main objectives of the southern prong of the German attack.
On December 19, the Americans reinforced the town with troops of the 101st Airborne Division and part of the 10th Armoured Division. By December 21 the Americans still held the town but they had been outflanked and cut off to the north and the south. They were surrounded. The Germans continued to pound them for 6 days. Conditions were brutal. Short on ammunition, with almost no medical supplies, and totally inadequate clothing against the cold, the US paratroopers endured temperatures as low as -25˚C at night, heavy artillery barrages and several ground attacks, as they sat out in the woods that surround the town and its vital crossroads.
On December 26, General Patton’s 4th Armoured Division managed to break through the German lines and open a corridor to the besieged troops. The siege was over, although the agony and discomfort for the troops defending the town continued on well into the middle of January, even though the failure of Hitler’s last gamble was plain for everyone to see far sooner than that.
His gamble had cost him dearly. After the Battle of the Bulge, the Luftwaffe was finished as an armed force and didn’t feature again for the rest of the war, the German reserve had all been used up and the defensive power of the Siegfried Line badly diminished. Moreover, the Allies were now poised for an offensive of their own. The end for Germany was now just a matter of time.
I imagine a fair number of you may have seen the Band of Brothers mini series, which follows the progress of a company of paratroopers from the 101st Airborne Division across Europe. A couple of the episodes depict their experience through the Siege of Bastogne so you’ll have some idea of what they went through.
I suppose with this in mind, and listening to the unfolding of this piece of history in my book, I set off to have a look at the place for myself.
Road through the Ardennes
Heading northwest from Luxembourg took me immediately into the forest of the Ardennes. I passed under dense avenues of rusty coloured beech trees and oaks, with the road then emerging at the top of each hill, revealing great vistas out over meadows and grazing pastures, more woodland and sharply cut little river valleys. There is little flat ground about this area, and I was always climbing or descending as I got closer and closer to the town of Bastogne itself.
However, by now the rain had gone and I was enjoying a bright and warm afternoon through some interesting country. I crossed the border into my 18th country.
I didn’t quite know what to expect once I arrived in Bastogne. I knew that it was pretty unlikely that any raggedy-looking paratroopers would jump out of the hedgerow into my path, but I suppose I half hoped that they just might.
It was early in the day and I wondered whether I’d just have a quick cycle around and then keep going. I presumed that very few people would really be interested about this relatively obscure town in eastern Belgium, and the reasons I had for visiting.
But I guess I was wrong about that.
It was hard to say whether Bastogne is just like any other town in Belgium, since I’ve hardly ever been to Belgium before now. But everything seemed quite normal.
But then I began to notice a few signs of the things that had taken place there: La Place Général McAuliffe (the Commanding Officer of the 101st Airborne Division in Bastogne); the Mardasson Memorial; Le Centre Historique de la Bataille des Ardennes; Le Café “Nuts” (General McAuliffe’s response to the German demand for an American surrender during the siege).; Le Bois de la Paix.
Perhaps there was something to see here.
As the whole landscape sparkled in the late autumn light, I went off to take a look at the Mardasson Memorial. This turned out to be a massive monument erected in gratitude by the Belgian people to the memory of the American troops who were killed or wounded during the Battle of the Bulge.
It is quite impressive. About 15m high, in the shape of a massive pentagram, with the names of every US state engraved on its walls, together with the insignias of most participating regiments and a description of the progress of the battle on the inner face of each of its columns. You can also climb up on top of it and get a good view of the surrounding countryside, its woods and fields.
A Sherman tank parked near the Mardasson Memorial
I decided I’d go off and see what exactly Le Bois de la Paix was. I also wanted to see whether I could identify the woods where “Easy” Company (the Band of Brothers outfit) had been positioned, knowing it was somewhere near the village of Foy.
Approaching the Bois de la Paix
A couple of miles down the road, I came to the Bois de la Paix, a clearing that had been cut out of one of the existing woods in the area to the northeast of Bastogne. The clearing and the 4,000 trees that were then newly planted in it, are laid out to form the emblem of UNICEF – a woman holding her child, this being (I’m told) the universal symbol of human tenderness. It was planted in 1994 to mark the 50th anniversary of the battle.
Sunbeams through part of the Bois de la Paix
Once again, each of the units that served in the battle are represented by name, and each veteran that returned to mark its opening in 1994 got to choose a tree which now bears their name.
If I’d had any stronger connection with this episode than mere interest, I think I would have appreciated this simple memorial to the men that served.
After a few moments reflection here, I hopped back on my bike and headed off towards the village of Foy and some woods called the Bois Jacques. About 2km short of the village I came to a small crossroads and there, completely by chance, I pulled up next to a short memorial stone, made of gleaming black stone.
On it was written, “506th P.I.R. 101st Airborne Division, ‘E’ Company”, and to one side “The Eagle will always scream for our fallen brothers” with a list of names beneath.
So the woods I was about to go through were exactly the location where these men had been positioned for those icy cold days and nights during the battle. In fact you can wander about in the woods and find remnants of their old foxholes all over the place, but particularly just inside the edge of the wood looking out to the village of Foy.
Foxholes in the Bois Jacques (though not my shot)
The woods themselves had a kind of still and sepulchral atmosphere about them. Even in daylight, peering off into the middle distance inside the woods, I was looking into darkness, so thick where the pine branches overhead, and so numerous were the tree trunks about me. The pine trees were very tall and drew my gaze upwards, closing in above my head like the vaulted roof of a cathedral. I couldn’t tell which was making my spine chill, the imagination of what it was like to endure relentless shelling for days on end in the cold in such other worldly surroundings, or the thought that I was actually standing where many men had lost their lives in agonising ways, enduring fear and physical pain way beyond any normal human experience – the place where so many souls had been wrenched out of this world and into the next.
The edge of the Bois Jacques
The sun was dropping so I climbed aboard again and began pedalling the few kilometres back into Bastogne. At this stage I hadn’t decided where to spend the night. The couple of hotels I’d identified in town seemed to me unnecessarily expensive: over 50 Euros for a bed for the night was the cheapest I had found.
As I continued on the road, I kept looking at the woods. After this evening, I’d be in Brussels, then Antwerp, then Rotterdam. Then back in England it was only two days’ ride to get home. This night would be my last chance to camp. Even though my tent hadn’t seen much use in Europe I thought what better place to spend it than in these woods above Foy.
Looking down at the village of Foy
It was already pretty cold. I debated back and forth whether I should do it, and fairly soon decided I would. With darkness falling, I admit the idea of sitting in these deathly woods alone was more than a little disconcerting. But once I saw that I was scared of doing it, I realised that I had to.
So back I went into town, parked up at the Café Nuts on the Place Général McAuliffe and ordered a big Pizza Américaine (which else in this situation?) and a bottle of “Airborne Bière Brune” drunk out of a little pottery receptacle in the shape of a paratrooper’s helmet. (Belgians need no instruction in how to do kitsch.)
All this was most refreshing before I was about to go and soil myself in fear in the woods.
The restaurant was smothered in paratrooper paraphernalia, of photos, souvenirs, maps, pieces of kit, empty shell cases, ration cans, army unit insignias, caps, propaganda posters, parachute strips and strings, newspaper clippings.
The landlord was a cheery sort and was evidently well versed in welcoming Anglo-Saxon types to his establishment, with an ingratiating manner that stopped just the right side of obsequiousness.
I noticed at one of the other tables were sat a young man with short dark hair and a military-looking air. He had some kind of US army insignia on the sleeve of his t-shirt. He was accompanied by his fresh-faced sandy-haired wife, and a quiet little kid whose feet stuck straight out from the plastic chair on which he was perched, paying little attention to anything except the bowl of frites in front of his nose.
I wondered why they were there. Was the man a paratrooper? Had his grandfather been a Screaming Eagle and served here? Did he want his son to remember one of those “Battling Bastards of Bastogne” too?
I didn’t disturb their dinner to find out.
Instead I mounted up with flashlight in hand and set off for the cycling path that would lead directly to the Bois Jacques.
I was making good progress and had just left the outskirts of the town. There wasn’t much of a moon to speak of even though the night sky was clear. It would be a dark night. Suddenly, the flashlight flickered, dimmed and then cut completely.
I pulled up and stood for some moments in the darkness.
Fortunately this was something I had anticipated and had earlier put a spare battery in my pocket for just this problem. But it did make me think.
Hang on. What am I about to do here? Here I am, cycling off on my own in the dark on a moonless night, to spend a cold October night in the middle of a dense forest in a (very) strange land (I mean who really knows what these Belgians get up to?). To scrabble around with camping gear under a canopy of thickly covered pine branches, on decaying undergrowth, which is damp enough to stifle even the most piercing of screams. In a place where hundreds if not thousands of men had lost their lives in deeply traumatic circumstances. If there weren’t several dozen lost and wretched souls flitting from tree to tree under the cover of darkness just waiting to curl their icy fingers about my neck, I should be very surprised.
I thought to myself, “This is just about the perfect premise for some ghastly horror movie in the woods.”
I started imagining plots line. One started to form in my mind:
A young American paratrooper back from Afghanistan has two months leave. He decides to take his young family on a tour of the battlefields of Europe where his grandfather had served in the war. They have come to the final scene of his campaign from Normandy to Belgium: the small market town of Bastogne, where his grandfather had sat out the cold and the shells in misery, until he sustained a “million dollar wound” in his hand and managed to get shipped out of there. He’d lived to a ripe old age, eventually passing away just two years before. As his grandson was growing up, he had often asked his grandfather about his experience in the war, which he was happy to talk about. All except Bastogne. Although he understood it must have been traumatic for his grandfather, it often seemed to him that there was something more to it than that. More than that he didn’t want to talk about it, almost like he was hiding something.
Curious and hearty, and wishing to honour the other Screaming Eagles that had fallen, the man’s decided he’s gonna take his family into the woods and camp just where his grandfather had been positioned. (Quite apart from the fact that it’s damned expensive to find a room in town.) Of course, his wife has a naturally nervous temperament, and is spooked by the idea of camping out in such creepy circumstances (sensible girl). His kid is only 5 years old and is also secretly terrified but trying to be brave for his dad.
Technically they’d be trespassing so he decides they’ll go set up camp after dark to avoid being seen.
Blah di blah. They set up camp by flashlight, amid nervous jitters etc. etc. Then the fun begins. Snapping twigs, rustling branches. Fleeting shadows behind tree trunks. Murmurs outside the tent. Footfalls off in the darkness. Off the man goes to investigate. Lots of confusing shining of the flashlight into the darkness in the middle distance. Suddenly he hears a brittle voice, saying “Coward”. And then another hissed in his ear, “Traitor”.
Anyway, I'll save the full telling for another time, but the rest of the story began to fall out in my mind, with chases in the darkness, faulty torches, surprise appearances by foresters and their rapid demise, blood-curdling screams, generational curses, revealing notes found in foxholes left over from the dead soldiers in the war, the gory killing of at least one unsuspecting cyclist and fellow trespasser, the unfolding of the whole mystery and the family's connection with the rampaging ghost etc. etc.
At around this point in my runaway imaginings, as I cycled closer and closer to the Bois Jacques, I was wishing that God had granted me a far less vivid imagination, if only for this particular night. That and I couldn’t decide in my story whether the kid was gonna get it in the neck or not. (If the audience was American, no; if French, yes. If English, it depends.) And I was wondering how many other ways a person could meet a grisly end in a Belgian wood. Unexploded hand grenades, fall on a rusty bayonet, stumble into a bear trap (or perhaps more likely in Belgium a particularly vicious weasel trap), accidently swallow poison ivy, be bitten by a rabid rodent of some description. And all this at the careful supernatural direction of a rampaging spectral paratrooper.
Whatever the conclusion of this little story, the man was damn stupid to drag his poor family out there in the first place.
That’s how I felt about it, anyway.
But I was not going to give myself the same advice. I’d resolved to do this and I wasn’t going to bottle out now.
It wasn’t long before I was back at the little crossroads, and took the turn towards the road that went into the darkness of the woods. The woods that had seemed dark and gloomy in the dying light of day, were now simply a single tall silhouette the colour of pitch against the black blue backdrop of the night sky.
My torch was functioning a lot better than the unfortunate mother’s in my story thankfully. Once under the cover of trees on both sides, I found the little woodland track I’d noticed earlier in the day and turned off to the left. The mud on the track was moist and squashy making my wheels slew around. In the torchlight ahead, the track cut through the woods like a stunted tunnel, which might have been leading me into the bowels of hell for all I knew, so obscure was the vanishing point in the distance.
After riding for about 5 minutes quite slowly deeper and deeper into the heart of the wood, I figured here was as good as anywhere to pitch my tent, just a few yards off the track. If any foresters were out tonight to catch foreign trespassers this deep into their precious woods, I’d take my hat off to them for their diligence.
I was trying not to think about dead people. I’ve never wanted to get inside my tent so much on the whole trip. Of course, I kick myself now for not really pushing the limits and roving around the woods armed only with my torch (and a wickedly sharp knife from Kashgar I suppose). Still you can always do more with hindsight.
And I was flapping around with tent pegs and connectable rods and bike panniers, concentrating solely on the objects immediately in front of me in the torchlight. The moment I started wondering whether anything was standing behind me in the darkness, breathing (or not)…..watching….existing…..there, I’d have to force down the urge to go running back down the track yelling for mama.
Sometimes as I moved about, the torchlight would shine off into the distance amongst the tree trunks and I would hold my breath, half-expecting to see a shadow flit from one trunk to another, or a grim and ghoulish face with sunken eyes lean out under a green helmet, and whisper something disconcerting like “cooooome with us”. (I never should have watched Pet Cemetery when I was 11 years old.)
My woodland campsite
In fact, there was no cracking of twigs, no ghostly whistling of the wind in the tops of the trees, no rustle of branches. Instead, the silence was heavy. Dense. Almost stagnant. Deathly but somehow warm. The softness of the earth in some way comforting.
Anyway, I did get up my tent, flung everything into it, leapt in myself and zipped myself up quick smart. As I lay there in my sleeping bag, the fatigue of the day began to sweep over me mercifully quickly.
“God bless those boys” was the last thing I remember thinking before my mind fell into the sweet obscurity of sleep.
(Copyright T.H.R. Brun 2012)
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