Belgium: US troops stuck on the Siegfried Line

A wounded US soldier is attended to during fighting in the heavily wooded Ardenne region, Autumn 1944.
A wounded US soldier is attended to during fighting in the heavily wooded Ardenne region, Autumn 1944.

On the left flank of the Allied advance the British and Canadians held a section of Holland and the coast. At least here, even with the polders and the dykes, there was some scope to bring the armour to bear.

For the American Armies further south there was a new type of terrain to adjust to – densely wooded hills and mountains. The Schnee Eifel Forest lay in the north then the Hurtgen Forest, further south lay the Vosges region – all of it would serve to slow up the US advance. In addition, all along the line down the German border lay the static defences of the Siegfried Line.

George Wilson was a platoon leader with F Company of the 22nd Infantry Regiment of the 4th Infantry Division:

A new phase of the war began when the GI’s met stiffened enemy resistance at the Siegfried Line and at the same time ran perilously low on gas, ammunition, food, and other necessities. The rugged terrain of the Schnee Eifel forest, with its dense woods, steep slopes and ravines, poor roads, and strategically placed pillboxes, gave the Germans a telling tactical advantage. From behind these natural and manmade defenses, a very few Germans could pin down a great many attackers.

Wilson’s unit arrived in the area in mid Ocotober, they had to accustom themselves to the gloom of forest and new threats:

My platoon had just begun to dig in when we were suddenly attacked by about forty Germans, who ran at us shooting, taking cover behind trees as they moved in. We instantly dropped our shovels, lay down in the shallow beginnings of our foxholes, and fired back with all we had.

All they seemed to have were single-shot, bolt-action rifles, and these quickly proved no match for the volleys of our Browning Automatic rifles (BARS) and semiautomatic M-1s. The Krauts were stopped about seventy five yards in front of us. They probably came upon us by accident, and they didn’t seem organized. It now looked as though they might be regrouping to continue the attack, so I called for artillery.

Our artillery forward observer, a very young chap who was new to us, started off by giving us a real thrill. His first rounds were not the standard High Explosive. They were lethal white phosphorus, designed to burn through anything. They also fell short, hitting high up in the huge maples directly overhead. Smoking hot metal rained down all around us.

I screamed at him to cease fire and raise his guns, and his next rounds were right on target, bursting in the trees just over the Germans, seventy five yards out from us. About a dozen of the 105s blasted in over the Germans with a thunderous racket, and that ended any attack plans they might have had. They collected their wounded and took off to the rear.

The forward observer apologized for the short rounds. He actually had called for smoke shells to point out the target but got thermite instead, and thermite sometimes docs fall short.

It was there in that green forest that we ran into the most frightening weapon of the war, the one that made us almost sick with fear: antipersonnel mines. By now I had gone through aerial bombing, artillery and mortar shelling, open combat, direct rifle and machine gun firing, night patrolling, and ambush.

Against all of this we had some kind of chance; against mines we had none. They were vicious, deadly, inhuman. They churned our guts.

They were planted a few inches below the soil and covered by leaves or natural growth that left no sign. Not a bit of ground was safe. They went off if you stepped on them with as little as five pounds of pressure, or if you moved their invisibly thin trip wire. The only defense was to not move at all.

A mine usually blew off one leg up to the knee and shattered the other, which looked like it had been blasted by a shotgun at close range. If the man was not killed instantly, he needed immediate attention due to shock and loss of blood.

Soon each of the line companies had lost men to mines, and the rest of us were afraid to walk anywhere. A call went out to the engineers and the pioneer platoons, which had specially trained men, who cleared paths through mine fields. Each path was about three feet wide and was marked by white tape.

The specialists used mine detectors very slowly and deliberately; yet despite their care, an engineer lost his leg in one of the cleared paths.

After that tragedy they began to probe every inch of ground with trench knives, gently working the knives in at an angle, hoping to hit only the sides of mines. This way they came upon many devilish little mines handmade from cottage cheese-type crocks and sealed with wax. Their only metal was the detonator, which was too small to be picked up by mine detectors.

The engineers and pioneers worked day and night for several days on what had to be one of the nastiest jobs of the war; each probe could be a man’s last.

George Wilson: If You Survive: From Normandy to the Battle of the Bulge to the End of World War II, One American Officer’s Riveting True Story

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