Battle of the Bulge: Infantry attack on coldest night

Men of 1st Glasgow Highlanders, 52nd (Lowland) Division wearing winter camouflage, prepare to go out on a patrol near Gangelt in Germany, 10 January 1945.
Men of 1st Glasgow Highlanders, 52nd (Lowland) Division wearing winter camouflage, prepare to go out on a patrol near Gangelt in Germany, 10 January 1945.
Men of 1st Glasgow Highlanders, 52nd (Lowland) Division wearing winter camouflage on a patrol near Gangelt in Germany, 10 January 1945.
Men of 1st Glasgow Highlanders, 52nd (Lowland) Division wearing winter camouflage on a patrol near Gangelt in Germany, 10 January 1945.

The Allied counter-attack in the Ardennes continued. Some of the men in the line were equipped for the bitter winter weather and issued with snow camouflage. Other were not and there are quite a few accounts of troops improvising with the use of bed sheets, sometimes taken from civilian houses, which they draped over ordinary uniform. There was an additional hazard as well – at times it was to become so cold that personal weapons began to freeze up.

Private Tom Renouf, of 7 Platoon of “A” Company, 5th Black Watch describes an attack made by his Company on 12th January. They attacked in an area where the Germans where making a determined stand because it protected one of the routes that their main forces were withdrawing through. Renouf was struck by the absolute destruction of the village of La Roche which they passed through on the way to their start line. As they left the village they passed badly wounded men falling back from an earlier attack:

We moved out of La Roche uphill into the forests. It was about 1400 hours, the sky was heavy with clouds, it was now a dark day, with snow still falling. We travelled up this road for about one and a half miles, ‘A’ Company now in the lead, but not our platoon. There were many stops and starts and there were a few shells coming into our direction. By this time we were beginning to feel the cold.

The leading section reached the open ground and was making to the Fme du Vivier when they were fired upon by an enemy tank. One man, Alexander Close, was killed others were wounded but the section was able to withdraw. The Company was deployed in defensive positions and told to ‘dig in’. The ground, however, was too hard to dig slit trenches. So we had to lay down in the snow among the trees, seeking what cover we could find. By now it was beginning to darken.

Our platoon was deployed on the left hand side of the road, where we were mortar bombed. Since we had no adequate protection from slit trenches, several of the platoon were hit (Stan Suskins for the third time). The farm building was shelled by our artillery.

An attack was mounted, but the odds were uneven – it was ‘A’ Company against enemy armour – and the attack was unsuccessful. Later that night a further attack on the farm was made, but it was found abandoned by the enemy. We heard the enemy tanks pulling out.

The temperature had dropped well below zero, in fact it was one of the coldest nights during the coldest winter for 40 years. We did not wear our great coats in the attack, but had only our oil-skin gas capes, which kept us dry but not warm. Additionally we had had no rest for over 20 hours, and our exhaustion made us feel colder.

Our bodies were chilled right through and our limbs were beginning to lose all feeling. Only by moving and stamping our feet could we fight the cold. Our hands were completely numb and our rifles were like solid ice, and beginning to be seized up with frozen bolts.

When the cold seemed to be at its worst and we seemed to have reached a limit of endurance, we were rescued once again by our wonderful Platoon sergeant, Bob Fowler, who – like a big St.Bernard – appeared with a large mug of rum, and dished out two large spoonfuls to everyone in the section. After this I began to feel my body again, although I still did not feel my limbs.

The forward platoons had reached the crossroads, where there was a row of cottages, one of them a Cafe/Bar. There had been a skirmish and an exchange of fire. The Germans had been driven out but none of them had been injured or taken prisoner. By this time it was nearly dawn, we were still crouched in the ditch and I remember being so tired that as I lay back against the wall I fell asleep. I slept for 20 minutes until we moved on.

When I awoke I was numb with the cold, but much revived. “A” Company occupied the crossroads and Major Mathew, M.C., the Company commander deployed the three platoons in defensive positions. My platoon fortunately occupied the cottages, but the other platoons were out in the open.

Day came with clear skies and the sun shining brightly. It had been one of the worst nights during the campaign, mainly because of the extreme cold and the utter exhaustion. Inside the cottages we relaxed our vigilance and lay down to rest.

Their ordeal was not yet over, with the bolts on their rifles frozen and inoperable, they nearly panicked as they faced what they thought were German panzers approaching. See 51st Highland Division for the full account of the attack on Hubermont.

An officer of a reconnaissance patrol in snow camouflage, 15 January 1945.
An officer of a reconnaissance patrol in snow camouflage, 15 January 1945.

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