The aftermath of war in Christmas card country

P-47D-27-RE Thunderbolt 404th Fighter Squadron, 371st Fighter Group, 9th Air Force Taken at: Tantonville Airfield (Y-1), France, 12 January 1945

P-47D-27-RE Thunderbolt 404th Fighter Squadron, 371st Fighter Group, 9th Air Force Taken at: Tantonville Airfield (Y-1), France, 12 January 1945

 A shattered German tank, its turret torn off by anti-tank fire, symbolising the ferocity of the American defence of their positions at Bastogne, the key town in the Ardennes.

A shattered German tank, its turret torn off by anti-tank fire, symbolising the ferocity of the American defence of their positions at Bastogne, the key town in the Ardennes.

The Allies had begun their counter-attack against the German Ardenne offensive and by the 27th the siege of Bastogne had been lifted. It remained close to the front lines. The Battle of the Bulge was still very far from over – but from now on would be dominated by the Allied attempts to push the Germans back.

Amongst journalists covering the war perhaps none was more remarkable that Martha Gellhorn, whose determination to get as close to the front as possible led to many evasions of Allied officialdom, including impersonating a stretcher bearer to get onto the beaches of D-Day.

As soon as the siege of Bastogne was lifted she set off to see for herself:

They all said it was wonderful Kraut—killing country. What it looked like was scenery for a Christmas card: smooth white snow hills and bands of dark forest and villages that actually nestled. The snow made everything serene, from a distance.

The road to Bastogne had been worked over by the Ninth Air Force Thunderbolts before the Third Army tanks finally cleared the way. A narrow alley was free now, and two or three secondary roads leading from Bastogne back to our lines.

“Lines” is a most inaccurate word and one should really say “leading back through where the Germans weren’t to where the Americans were scattered about the snowscape.” The Germans remained on both sides of this alley and from time to time attempted to push inward and again cut off Bastogne.

A colleague and I drove up to Bastogne on a secondary road through breath-taking scenery. The Thunderbolts had created this scenery. You can say the words “death and destruction” and they don’t mean anything. But they are awful words when you are looking at what they mean.

There were some German staff cars along the side of the road: they had not merely been hit by machine—gun bullets, they had been mashed into the ground. There were half—tracks and tanks literally wrenched apart, and a gun position directly hit by bombs.

All around these lacerated or flattened objects of steel there was the usual riffraff: papers, tin cans, cartridge belts, helmets, an odd shoe, clothing. There were also, ignored and completely inhuman, the hard-frozen corpses of Germans. Then there was a clump of houses, burned and gutted, with only a few walls standing, and around them the enormous bloated bodies of cattle.

The road passed through a curtain of pine forest and came out on a flat, rolling snow field. In this field the sprawled or bunched bodies of Germans lay thick, like some dark shapeless vegetable.

We had watched the Thunderbolts working for several days. They flew in small packs and streaked in to the attack in single file. They passed quickly through the sky and when they dived you held your breath and waited; it seemed impos- sible that the plane would be able to pull itself up to safety. They were diving to within sixty feet of the ground. The snub—nosed Thunderbolt is more feared by the German troops than any other plane.

You have seen Bastogne and a thousand other Bastognes in the newsreels. These dead towns are villages spread over Europe and one forgets the human misery and fear and despair that the cracked and caved-in buildings represent.

Bastogne was a German job of death and destruction and it was beautifully thorough. The 101st Airborne Division, which held Bastogne, was still there, though the day before the wounded had been taken out as soon as the first road was open.

The survivors of the 101st Airborne Division, after being entirely surrounded, uninterruptedly shelled and bombed, after having fought off four times their strength in Germans, look — for some unknown reason — cheerful and lively. A young lieutenant remarked, “The tactical situation was always good.” He was very surprised when we shouted with laughter.

The front, north of Bastogne, was just up the road and the peril was far from past.

At Warnach, on the other side of the main Bastogne road, some soldiers who had taken, lost and retaken this miserable village were now sightseeing the battlefield. They were also inspecting the blown-out equipment of two German tanks and a German self-propelled gun which had been destroyed here.

Warnach smelled of the dead; in subzero weather the smell of death has an acrid burning odor. The soldiers poked through the German equipment to see if there was anything useful or desirable. They unearthed a pair of good bedroom slippers alongside the tank, but as no one in the infantry has any chance to wear bedroom slippers these were left. There was a German Bible but no one could read German. Someone had found a German machine pistol in working order and rapidly salted it away; they hoped to find other equally valu- able loot.

The American dead had been moved inside the smashed houses and covered over; the dead horses and cows lay where they were, as did a few dead Germans.

This account appeared in the post war collection : Martha Gellhorn: The Face of War

An American soldier examines an abandoned PzKpfw V Panther tank near the village of Manhay.

An American soldier examines an abandoned PzKpfw V Panther tank near the village of Manhay.

 Lieutenant Thomas of the US Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron, followed by other troops, moves to winkle out German snipers in the outskirts of Beffe.

Lieutenant Thomas of the US Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron, followed by other troops, moves to winkle out German snipers in the outskirts of Beffe.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Rickdeb Sen January 18, 2015 at 10:25 pm

the first photo is of a destroyed panzer mach IV. notice the lower width of the tracks as compared to the tiger.

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