US Commander in Bastogne : “NUTS” to Surrender

Refugees evacuate the Belgian town of Bastogne while American troops hold the town against the German assaults.
Refugees evacuate the Belgian town of Bastogne while American troops hold the town against the German assaults.

In the town of Bastogne the 101st Airborne Division was dug in fighting a determined stand against an increasingly frustrated German spearhead. The Americans had identified elements of four Panzer Divisions, two Infantry Divisions and two Parachute Divisions amongst the forces surrounding them.

Th Battle for Bastogne had begun with the hasty arrival of the 101st, whose immediate spoiling actions had blunted the German attack. Alongside the 10th Armored Division and the 705th Tank Destroyer Battalion they were now consolidating their positions to hold onto the town.

With their ammunition running short, no air support available because of the low cloud, and no prospect of relief in the the midst of confused fighting across the Ardennes, the 101st’s position might be thought to be becoming vulnerable.

December 22 1944

To the U.S.A. Commander of the encircled town of Bastogne

The fortune of war is changing. This time the the U.S.A. forces in and near Bastogne have been encircled by strong German armored units.

There is only one possibility to save the encircled U.S.A. Troops from total annihilation: that is the honorable surrender of the encircled town. In order to think it over a term of two hours will be granted beginning with the presentation of this note.

If this proposal should be rejected the German Artillery Corps and six heavy A.A. Battalions are ready to annihilate the USA troops in and near Bastogne. The order for firing will be given immediately after this two hour’s term.

All the serious civilian losses caused by this Artillery fire would not correspond with the well known American humanity.

The German Commander

The reply was not long in coming

To the German Commander

NUTS!

The American Commander

22 December 1944

Contemporary newsletter from the 101st Airborne Division describing the surrender offer.
Contemporary newsletter from the 101st Airborne Division describing the surrender offer.

It was fortunate that the US had had a number of experienced battle hardened units to push into the battle for the Ardennes. The two Airborne Divisions were both to make significant contribution.

The centre of Bastogne in the aftermath of German shelling.
The centre of Bastogne in the aftermath of German shelling.

While the 10st Airborne stuck it out in Bastogne, elsewhere, in a less remembered battle the 82nd Airborne, were engaged in the struggle for another critical town – Cheneaux.

Corporal George Graves, the 504th Regimental S1 recorded serious casualties amongst the 1st Battalion, with many men lost in fierce hand to hand fighting with the 1st SS Panzer Division on the 21st December .

On the 22nd he wrote:

About noon the 2nd Bn left their entrenched positions to relieve the 1st Bn in the town of Cheneux, now completely occupied. The shattered remnants of the 1st Bn came straggling listlessly down the road, a terrible contrast to the happy Battalion which had only two days before gone up the same road wisecracking and full of fight.

They were bearded, red—eyed, covered with mud from head to foot, and staring blank-faced straight to the front. No one spoke. What few officers there were in the columns, half of what had started for Cheneux, were indistinguishable from the men except for the markings on their helmets. They carried their rifles any way that seemed comfortable, some in Daniel Boone fashion.

They had written a page in history that few would ever know about. Already there was talk of a Presidential Citation to record for posterity what was plainly written on their faces that morning.

To millions of Americans at home, the name Cheneux was meaningless. In the swirling holocaust of fire and fury which descended on the peaceful valley of the Ambleve River in Belgium, it might not even be mentioned in the newspapers, such was the confusion of places, units, and deeds being churned around in the “witch’s brew” which was the present battle of the Ardennes.

See James Megellas: All the Way to Berlin: A Paratrooper at War in Europe.

On Dec. 22, 1944 the 2nd Bn, 504 Parachute Infantry Reg. is crossing the village of Rahier as to relieve the 1st Bn in Cheneux after the battle.
On Dec. 22, 1944 the 2nd Bn, 504 Parachute Infantry Reg. is crossing the village of Rahier as to relieve the 1st Bn in Cheneux after the battle.

Malmedy – lone infantryman beats off Panzers

Setting up a .50 machine gun in Malady on 20th December
Setting up a .50 machine gun in Malmedy on 22nd December
A crude German attempt to use false colours to disguise a Panzer in order to surprise US positions.
A crude German attempt to use false colours to disguise a Panzer in order to surprise US positions, Malmedy.

Although Malmedy is remembered for the notorious massacre of 17th December, which took place outside the town, it was also the site of another of the bitter defence battles that held the US lines at the height of the Battle of the Bulge.

In the heavily wooded mountainous terrain of the Ardennes the Germans could only make progress through a limited number of small towns where the roads intersected. It was to these locations that the US Army rushed re-inforcements and sought to make a stand.

On the outskirts of these towns the first defence position was a usually a road block on a critical feature, often lightly manned.

It was in such a position in Malmedy that Sergeant Francis Sherman “Frank” Currey in the 3rd platoon of Company K, 120th Infantry Regiment, 30th Infantry Division found himself in charge in the early hours of the 21st December.

The attack towards K Company’s roadblock began as an infantry attack. There was no artillery preparation, in fact, no artillery support at all. When the advancing enemy infantry got within three or four hundred yards of the roadblock’s outpost, they were discovered and fired upon.

A spirited firefight immediately developed. Under the cover of machine gun and direct fire, the attackers advanced and took possession of a house in the vicinity of the crewless TD gun, about 200 yards from the positions of the defending platoon.

The enemy made this house into a strong point and built up a line east thereof. Practically all of the hostile infantrymen carried automatic weapons.

After about six hours, during which the men of Company K fought off all efforts of the German infantry to overrun their position, the supporting hostile tanks moved forward up the road in an effort to break the resistance, which the infantry had been unable to do.

From the original 30th Division historical narrative.

We were guarding a bridge, a very vital bridge,

About four o’clock the next morning, here come the German tanks almost bumper to bumper, an armored column. One of them pulled right up to our position, and I had a Browning automatic rifle at the time, and the officer leading the column was up in the turret, and I fired at him, buttoned him up, and the others scattered.

We withdrew to this factory. It had a lot of windows in it, and we were firing from a window. ‘Move, fire, move, fire’ And made them think that we were a lot more than we actually were.

[Under cover of darkness, Sergeant Currey and his men escaped in an abandoned jeep.]

Now, visualize, five young men, the oldest 21-years-old, in the middle of Belgium, when it was dark. We couldn’t use lights on the jeep. We were surrounded by Germans. That’s youth!

See Hurleyville website for more.

Currey was awarded the Medal of Honor, the citation for which describes the action in much more detail:

He was an automatic rifleman with the 3d Platoon defending a strong point near Malmedy, Belgium, on 21 December 1944, when the enemy launched a powerful attack.

Overrunning tank destroyers and antitank guns located near the strong point, German tanks advanced to the 3d Platoon’s position, and, after prolonged fighting, forced the withdrawal of this group to a nearby factory.

Sgt. Currey found a bazooka in the building and crossed the street to secure rockets meanwhile enduring intense fire from enemy tanks and hostile infantrymen who had taken up a position at a house a short distance away. In the face of small-arms, machinegun, and artillery fire, he, with a companion, knocked out a tank with 1 shot.

Moving to another position, he observed 3 Germans in the doorway of an enemy-held house. He killed or wounded all 3 with his automatic rifle. He emerged from cover and advanced alone to within 50 yards of the house, intent on wrecking it with rockets.

Covered by friendly fire, he stood erect, and fired a shot which knocked down half of 1 wall. While in this forward position, he observed 5 Americans who had been pinned down for hours by fire from the house and 3 tanks. Realizing that they could not escape until the enemy tank and infantry guns had been silenced, Sgt. Currey crossed the street to a vehicle, where he procured an armful of antitank grenades. These he launched while under heavy enemy fire, driving the tankmen from the vehicles into the house.

He then climbed onto a half-track in full view of the Germans and fired a machinegun at the house. Once again changing his position, he manned another machinegun whose crew had been killed; under his covering fire the 5 soldiers were able to retire to safety.

Deprived of tanks and with heavy infantry casualties, the enemy was forced to withdraw. Through his extensive knowledge of weapons and by his heroic and repeated braving of murderous enemy fire, Sgt. Currey was greatly responsible for inflicting heavy losses in men and material on the enemy, for rescuing 5 comrades, 2 of whom were wounded, and for stemming an attack which threatened to flank his battalion’s position.

The ordeal of Malady was not yet over. Only days later it would twice be hit in error by US bombers struggling to find their targets in the low cloud base – causing more casualties amongst civilians and US troops that the battle itself.

Dec. 29th....30th Division troops march through Malmedy which was leveled in error by US bombers.
Dec. 29th….30th Division troops march through Malmedy which was leveled in error by US bombers.
T/Sgt Currey, Francis S., Co. K 120th Infant Regt, 30th Infantry Div. of Hurleysville NY,used these weapons while halting a German attack on his company during the Battle of the Bulge. Maj. Gen. Leland S. Hobbs, CG, 30th infantry division, presented him with the Nation's highest award, the Medal of Honor at Camp Oklahoma City redeployment center near Reims France. 26 July 1945
T/Sgt Currey, Francis S., Co. K 120th Infant Regt, 30th Infantry Div. of Hurleysville NY,used these weapons while halting a German attack on his company during the Battle of the Bulge. Maj. Gen. Leland S. Hobbs, CG, 30th infantry division, presented him with the Nation’s highest award, the Medal of Honor at Camp Oklahoma City redeployment center near Reims France. 26 July 1945

US POWs on a boxcar through Germany

American soldiers of the 3rd Battalion of U.S. 119th Infantry are taken prisoner by members of Kampfgruppe Peiper in Stoumont, Belgium on 19 December 1944
American soldiers of the 3rd Battalion of U.S. 119th Infantry are taken prisoner by members of Kampfgruppe Peiper in Stoumont, Belgium on 19 December 1944

The Battle of the Bulge was turning into one of the largest battles that the US would ever fight. Eventually they would suffer around 89,000 casualties, including 19,000 dead, in the space of just over a month.

Several of the Allied commanders were now welcoming the attack, an opportunity to hit the Germans hard if they could just contain them and then attack across the base of the German advance.

For the men in the middle of the battle it was a different story. William F. Meller was in the 110th Regiment, 28th Division. His 11 man section, manning a point just opposite the Siegfried Line, held out for almost 12 hours on the 16th December until, out of ammunition and surrounded, they were forced to surrender.

What followed was a miserable experience, shared with 23,000 other US troops who were taken prisoner:

20 December 1944

The train stops and we all get out. This sorry lump of humanity begins to move, then gradually develops into a group of individuals. As we climb down to the ground, the guards remind us they are watching us. It is getting tougher and tougher climbing in and out of the boxcar. These old civilian guards should be home with their grandchildren, not here, where they might be killed at any moment.

We relieve ourselves, then line up to fill our canteens from a faucet. No one asks if the water is clean or contaminated. No one cares. War is humbling. We have no dignity, look filthy, feel filthy, and we are at the bottom of the pit.

If the Germans are trying to break our morale, it won’t work. We have no morale. The snow—covered mountains around us remain cold and hostile. It has been four days now, and we have been fed nothing.

The genius standing next to me says, “Sarge, they’re not going to shoot us, they don’t have to. We’re going to starve to death.”

“Shut the hell up.” There is no use threatening anyone with punishment or promising violence. No one gives a damn. We just have to tough it out, period.

The German soldiers don’t look much better than we do. Some of them look disabled and some look older. They may have been injured in combat and are now only fit for this type of duty. Most are privates, plus a few noncommissioned officers. None of them look happy to be here.

They seem to be afraid of the American planes. They may be thinking about what would happen if we all jumped them right now. I know we are thinking about it. If we jump them, some of us will be shot. There is no doubt in our minds that we can take them. The problem is that we don’t know where we are. We don’t know how far it is to the American lines. I know we are east of the Rhine River because I saw it last night as we passed over.

The man next to me says, “We ought to jump them.” “Do you want to be the first?” He doesn’t answer.

We are herded back inside. I take a careful look at the train; it’s a long one. I don’t know where the guards ride; it must be in one of their own boxcars. The civilian guards carry old bolt-action rifles, while the soldiers carry submachine guns. I’m not afraid of the rifles, but the submachine guns are something to take seriously. The threats of these weapons keep us in line.

We are back inside. It seems we get out to relieve ourselves only when the train stops because of American planes in the vicinity; in this case, the engine unhooks and heads for the near- est tunnel for protection. The sergeant knows what he is talking about.

See William F. Meller: Bloody Roads to Germany: At Huertgen Forest and the Bulge–an American Soldier’s Courageous Story of World War II

German picture of Americans taken prisoner during their Ardenne offensive.
German picture of Americans taken prisoner during their Ardenne offensive.

Screaming Eagles of 506th PIR arrive in Bastogne

19th-december-1944-506th

The struggle to contain the German attack in the Ardennes continued. US Army units from all over northern France and Belgium were being urgently summoned and pushed into the front line in haste.

Amongst their number was Easy Company of the 2nd Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, later to become widely known as the ‘Band of Brothers‘.

The regiment were already veterans of parachute drops in Normandy and Eindhoven. The following account of the day comes from the Regimental History, and appears to follow the 1st Battalion. :

On the morning of the 19th we detrucked and went into assigned areas to rest from the long journey. In the early hours of morning it was dark and misty. This did not add to our chances of getting any rest until daybreak.

Not long after, the outfits assembled and struck out for Bastogne – two miles ahead …

Little was known of the situation because of the speed of the German counter-offensive. Few realized even now that we were headed for combat. That was the last thought in any man’s mind because of the scarcity of our equipment, and little if any ammo.

Finally we reached Bastogne, an important city. A deserted city, silent, with deathly atmosphere.

The few people remaining in Bastogne handed us hot coffee as we rounded the corner and headed for a little town called Noville. It lay approximately five miles ahead.

All the countryside had the appearance of sadness, quiet and dangerous. Along the road were ruins of various military vehicles of destruction. Some American, some German.

We passed the villages of Luzery and Foy. These little villages looked like the rest of the countryside, with the same deathly atmosphere about the buildings. All this while the same thought was running through every man’s mind. Where is the ammunition? It was certain, now, we were going right in with the enemy. It had to be that way because there were no roads but the one leading forward.

The long range guns were discharging their power and destruction. In the far distance were the faint bursts of small arms fire.

Armoured vehicles stood along the road. The drivers and crew stood beside them and gave what little ammunitidn they had to the men in the Company. These men had the look of defeat in their eyes. Their faces had the appearance of grave sorrow. They gave us words of encouragement and approval for help in a grave and dangerous situation.

The column moved onward and more cautiously because it was getting closer and closer to the enemy. In the minds of many there was still that repeated question! Where is the ammunition?

The strike of the heavy, long range guns beat louder. The small arms fire echoed through the hills.

Onward the column of concentrated minds pushed. Little conversation was carried on in the column.

But then our question was answered, for there in the middle of the road was the supply of ammunition laying on the ground beside a parked jeep. The men looked more relieved at this sight and thoughts of something to throw back at the enemy.

As the column passed, the ammunition was picked up and distributed sparingly among the men in the Company.

Onward, closer and closer the winding column pressed to the enemy. Like a vicious snake on the move to attack one of its dangerous enemies. Then the order was passed down for the column to halt. The troops lay in the ditches and rested. Some took handsful of snow that lay in small piles all over the countryside. The snow satisfied that dry taste in the mens’ mouths and the want of water.

As the Company lay there spread out the whining of our artillery could be heard as it passed overhead.

Beyond the hill, the last hill, lay the town of Noville, smoking and flaming. A machine gun began its familiar chattering. Mortar rounds could be heard striking the hillside. With all the confusion and noise, the valley, hills, and the village all bore the same atmosphere …. sadness, death and destruction.

The Company Commander went forward to the Battalion Commander’s position to get his orders and the Company’s Mission. At this time the Company was putting together bits of information gathered throughout the day.

The Company Commander came back to the Company and called the Platoon Leaders forward. The C.O. Gave the plans and order of attack to the Platoon Leaders. The Platoon Leaders went back to ther Platoons and gave the troops the information and plans.

Then the signal came for the march forward to meet the enemy. Shells evenly spaced cracked the surface of the earth in the village. The loud challenge of the bursting shells echoed off the hills to either flank. Onward in this volley of shells the company moved, then swung off the road into a field which lay in the valley.

Across the valley into a wooded hill, and there the Company halted. The other Companies of the Battalion went into their respective areas and waited for the order to go into the attack. Mortars went into position and concentrated fire was laid down on various targets. Then the signal …

The forward element of the Company went from the woods into the open field. Across the field and marsh, through a stream, into more woods and up into a hill. On the reverse side the enemy waited.

Machine guns, small arms, and long guns, continuously spread pellets of destruction swishing and whining through the trees. Onward went the Company, now scattered out and tired from the steep climb upward. Up and up! Over rocks, and along crevices, through woods, and finally … the enemy.

The enemy lay there watching, waiting for the men in the company to expose themselves.

The skirmish line was rapidly formed along the edge of the woods facing the enemy. Enemy …. and there it was! Seven heavily armoured Tiger tanks. What an enemy! Tanks of the best of armour against men of courage and small arms weapons. There was a Tiger Royal burning and the smoke swirled up into the heavens in a cone shaped column.

Bullets, shrapnel ripped by. Loud bursts of artillery and mortars vibrated the earth. Machine guns chattered, ours and the Germans. Men of the company were being hit, men groaned, and men shouted orders. But then came the order to withdraw!!

[Note : Such a surprising decision could only come in the face of the unknown, and overwhelming force of the enemy. A decision to organize and hold a strong point in that town to insure contact, relay necessary information, and screen actions of Division.]

The men withdrew in a sort of disorderly, lazy-like manner, wounded were limping and carried by their buddies. Some were left behind dead.

The Company was tramping a weary path in the soft plowed fields as they crossed. Not far was the burning and smell of the village of Noville. The acrid smell stung the nostrils.

In the mind was the hated word of all the Company – defeat -, yes, it was defeat. Defeat of man against steel and the best of armour. But the defeated had more than steel, they had courage. And they had patience.

On the way back to the town of Noville small groups of men began to organize into larger. Artillery began to bark at their heels as they entered the edge of town. Darkness had fallen as the majority of the company reached town.

Men were left at appointed posts to guide any others who might find their way back. Orders came out to hold the village at all costs. Strong points were lined around the northern section of the village. In buildings and good protection the men of the Company built their strong points.

Artillery pounded all night long. Set fire to many of the buildings and vehicles. Armour flamed a dark red against the reflected pink sky.

Men came in in ones and twos. Things didn’t seem so bad when the missing began to return. Many did not – never will.

The whole Regimental History of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment is available to download.

This dead Yank was felled while fighting with fellow soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division, to drive Nazis from a heavily wooded area near Bastogne, Belgium, where Germans were entrenched. (original Signal Corps caption)
This dead Yank was felled while fighting with fellow soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division, to drive Nazis from a heavily wooded area near Bastogne, Belgium, where Germans were entrenched. (original Signal Corps caption)

US 23rd Regiment holds the line against 12th SS

Men from 1st SS Panzer Division in a Schwimmwagen at Kaiserbaracke crossroads, between St. Vith and Malmedy, 18 December 1944.
Men from 1st SS Panzer Division in a Schwimmwagen at Kaiserbaracke crossroads, between St. Vith and Malmedy, 18 December 1944.

The US Commanders were now realising that they faced something much bigger than they had at first thought. German forces were pushing a ‘bulge’ into their lines on the Belgium -German border. This was the term the Press would pick up on.

For those facing the onslaught it was a disorientating experience at best. Company Commander Charles B. MacDonald of Company I, 3rd Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment had seen his company fall back in the face of the enemy. They were outflanked and almost overrun by Panzers. He had been forced to crawl through wet snow to make his escape with a few other men.

MacDonald felt he was a failure for the retreat and was ready to resign his commission. Instead when he finally found his Regimental commander he was congratulated for holding out much longer than anyone expected. He was almost too tired to appreciate it.

He was told to wait for new re-inforcement who would come up and help him hold the new position:

We found a pile of fresh hay in the end of the barn facing the enemy. I dug out an armful and spread it in a rear corner of the barn. I was cold. My clothes were soaked and my feet were drenched, but I pulled a portion of the hay over me and drifted off into a sleep of utter exhaustion.

It was neither the sound of the tanks firing nor the artillery exploding nor the staccato chant of automatic weapons that woke me. I seemed to hear them somewhere in the background, but my fatigued body did not respond. Someone was shaking me.

“Wake up, Cap’n! Wake up! The sonofabitches have hit us again. They’re all over the goddamned place!”

I jumped to my feet. The sound of battle in my ears was real now, and I could see the flash of tracer bullets as they passed the open door.

“Where’s L Company?” I asked.

“They didn’t get here,” the soldier answered, and I could not make out who he was in the darkness. “The others are gone. We’d better get the hell out.”

With that he was gone from the barn. I did not think to pick up my carbine. I looked toward the forward end of the barn where the hay had been stored. A tank was firing point-blank into the barn. The dry hay was a mass of flame.

I ran from the barn. The surrounding area was lit up from the flames and the paths of thousands of fiery tracer bullets. I saw a soldier, silhouetted against the tracers, throw a can of gasoline at a tank. The tank burst into flame.

There seemed to be no lull coming in the firing. I ran toward the rear of the farmhouse, snagging my trousers on a fence post and tearing at them madly. I flattened myself against the back wall of the stone building just as I shell from an enemy tank crashed into the front. The house rocked pecariously, trembling from the impact of the explosion.

The snow-covered area to the rear of the house became the beaten zone for countless tracer bullets. Tank fire crashed around the building. Artillery fell without pattern in the snow. The night was ablaze with more noise and flame than I had thought possible for men to create. Here was a ‘movie war’. Here was Armageddon.

I could see the outlines of a bomb crater halfway between the house and the first hedgerow behind it. I waited for a lull in the firing before leaving lhe momentary safety of the back of the house. I ran as fast as I could run across the open field and dived headfirst into the bomb crater. My body hit two other men huddling in the hole.

It seemed liked another retreat – but in the greater scheme of things the 23rd Regiment was making a successful stand. Each of the battalions was fighting savage battles to hold the line.

Charles B. Macdonald: Company Commander: The Classic Infantry Memoir of World War II

For four days the US 2nd (which the 23rd Regiment belonged to) and 9th Divisions fought to hold out against the 12th SS Panzer Division commanded by Sepp Dietrich. The Germans were already behind schedule but they couldn’t break through at Krinkelt-Rocherath, in front of the Elsenborn Ridge, to the key road network on the northern sector of the Bulge. They would break off and turn their attention to another town – Bastogne.

General Courtney Hodges, Commanding General of the 1st Army, declared,

What the 2nd Division has done in the last four days will live forever in the history of the United States Army.

German troops in a 'Schutzenpanzerwagen' during the Ardenne offensive.
German troops in a ‘Schutzenpanzerwagen’ during the Ardenne offensive.

SS Kampfgruppe Peiper massacre US troops at Malmedy

 Sepp Dietrich (left, behind Himmler), Heinrich Himmler (center), and Joachim Peiper (right) at Metz in September 1940.
Earlier in the war Peiper had served as a staff officer with Himmler before combat on the Eastern Front. Sepp Dietrich (left, behind Himmler), Heinrich Himmler (center), and Joachim Peiper (right) at Metz in September 1940.

The attack through the Ardennes was a desperate gamble for the Germans. They had stiffened their assault with some very experienced SS units, veterans of the Eastern Front, who could be trusted to fight ruthlessly. One of the these was SS Kampfgruppe Peiper, a 4,000 strong battle group led by 29 year old SS-Obersturmbannführer Joachim Peiper, that was expected to make a rapid thrust through US lines and seize key positions.

The advance of this Kampfgruppe was not nearly as swift as they had hoped but many who crossed their path were to suffer. They were to be responsible for a series of mass murders of groups of both US POWs and Belgium civilians. It was an attitude to war that was commonplace on the Eastern Front.

The most notorious incident happened on the 17th at the Baugnez Crossroads a couple of miles outside Malmedy.

Ted Paluch was a member of Battery B, 285th Field Artillery Observation Battalion, in a lightly armed convoy of jeeps and trucks:

On December 17th we were in Schevenhutte, Germany, and got our orders to go. We were in the First Army; we got our orders to move to the Third Army.

There was a tank column going with us, and they took the northern road and we took the southern road. That would have been something if they had gone with us south. Right before we left, a couple of guys got sick and a couple of trucks dropped out of the convoy, and they were never in the massacre. Also, there were about fifteen sent ahead to give directions and all, and they escaped the massacre.

We had no idea that it was going to happen. We took a turn, like a “T” turn, and the Germans were coming the other way. We were pretty wide open for I guess maybe half a mile, and their artillery stopped our convoy. We just had trucks, and all we carried was carbines. We might have had a machine gun and a bazooka, but that was about it, we were observation.

They stopped the convoy. We got out, and the ditches were close to five or six feet high because I know when I got in it, the road was right up to my eyes. There was a lot of firing, I don’t know what we were firing at or who was firing at anything, but there were a lot of tracer bullets going across the road.

Finally, a tank came down with the SS troopers behind it. They wore black, and on one collar they had a crossbones and skull and the other collar they had lightning. They just got us out, and we went up to the crossroad, and they just searched us there to get anything of value — cigarettes, and I had an extra pair of socks, and my watch, everything like that.

They put us in the field there that was their frontline — ours was two and a half miles away in Malmedy. When we were captured and being brought up there, the people who lived there or in that general area brought up a basket. I guess it was bread or something, and they brought it up to them to eat.

[ 113 US POWs were assembled in the field at the crossroads. It was a cold day but light snow only lay on the ground where it was in shadow. At about 1415 the SS started firing into the group of unarmed men. The initial shooting lasted about 15 minutes.]

Every truck and halftrack that passed fired into the group, and why I didn’t get hit too bad . . . I was in the front, right in the front, the first or second or third right in the front. Each track that came around the corner would fire right into the group in the middle so that they wouldn’t miss anything, that’s why I didn’t get too badly hit.

We laid there for about an hour, maybe two hours. While we were lying there, they come around, and anyone who was hurt, they just fired and would knock them off.

Someone yelled, “Let’s go!” and we took off.

[At this stage it is believed around 60 men were able to run off, including some who were wounded. More would be killed during this escape.]

I went down the road there, there was a break in the hedgerow, and a German that was stationed there at that house came out and took a couple of shots at me, and I got hit in the hand. If he saw me or not I don’t know, he went back and didn’t fire me at me anymore.

I was watching him come, and there was a well, and I went over there. It was all covered up, and I laid down, and there was a little hill right behind where I was, and I just rolled.

I got there, and I started coming in, and I got near a railroad, and I figured it would take us somewhere. I met a guy from my outfit, Bertera, and two other guys—one guy from the 2nd Division, he was shot, and another guy from the 2nd Division. The four of us came in together. It was dark when we got into Malmedy, but we could see some activity.

This account appears in Voices of the Bulge: Untold Stories from Veterans of the Battle of the Bulge.

The bodies of those killed now lay in the frozen field in what became no mans land until 14 January, when the US Army recovered the territory. After the war over 70 members of Kampfgruppe Peiper were tried for war crimes and 43 men were sentenced to death. None of the executions were carried out, the sentences being to commuted to life imprisonment. Joachim Peiper was the last to leave prison in 1956.

The 84 bodies of the POWs, covered by snow, were found on 14 January 1945.

Hitler launches surprise attack in Ardennes

A Nazi soldier, heavily armed, carries ammunition boxes forward  with a companion in territory taken by their counter- offensive. A scene from a captured German film. Belgium, December 1944.
A Nazi soldier, heavily armed, carries ammunition boxes forward
with a companion in territory taken by their counter- offensive. A scene from a captured German film. Belgium, December 1944.

Operation ‘Watch on the Rhine’ was the deliberately misleading German name for Hitler’s new offensive, suggesting a defensive plan on the western border of Germany. Instead Hitler was making one last throw of the dice to launch an attack through the same heavily wooded mountainous terrain that had surprised France in 1940.

This time it was the US Army that was surprised. The Ardennes, on the border of Belgium and Germany, had been a quiet sector of the front line which in many places was only thinly manned by US troops.

The 106th Infantry Division, freshly arrived in Europe and without combat experience, had just taken over a large section of the line on the 11th December. They took over a front 26 miles long, at a time when the US Army manual recommended that a Division was capable of holding a 5 mile front at most.

At dawn on the 16th December the men of the of the 424th Regiment awoke in their bunkers on the front line to the cries of a soldier shouting “The Germans are coming.The Germans are coming. We will all be killed”. Harry F. Martin Jr dived into his foxhole with his friend Bill Williams:

As soon as we got into our foxhole, Bill announced he was going to use a rifle grenade. Seconds later I could see hundreds of shadowy heads bobbing up and down, coming over the crest of the hill just before dawn. They acted like they were drunk or on drugs, screaming, shrieking. I was absolutely terrified. They had already outflanked our company and now they were coming to finish us off.

With nothing on our left and out of sight of our platoon on the right, it felt almost like we were against the entire German Army. I was horror-stricken. There was no thought of running away or surrendering. I had an absolute conviction to fight to the death, while being certain we would be killed.

Just about then, Bill tugged on my leg. I was vaguely aware he asked me to let him know when the Germans were close enough. Neither of us had ever fired a rifle grenade before and we did not have the slightest idea of the effective range.

There were so many of them storming down the hill coming right for us. There was no way of stopping all of them. I had a feeling of utter hopelessness; I was panic-stricken. I felt my entire life force had left my body. I was already dead and was fighting like a zombie. Sheer panic caused me to fire without thinking or aiming. I was unaware of my body, just terror, firing as fast as my finger could pull the trigger.

They kept coming as though immune to death. Apparently I was not hitting a thing. I was so transfixed with fear and terror, my eyes did not focus on the individual enemy. I was firing blindly, without thinking or looking through the sights.

In my terror-stricken seizure I continued to fire in the general direction of the swarming sea of terror, the huge mass of bodies charging toward me. It was as though the entire hillside was alive, moving with huge tentacles to devour me.

Bill tugged on my leg again and yelled, ‘Are they close enough?’ I can remember telling him no, but my brain didn’t register distance. I could not even think about what he was saying. He must have tugged my leg half a dozen times during the battle and I kept telling him no.

In the middle of this terrifying battle I heard a very confident, calm voice inside my head say,“Squeeze the trigger.’ I calmed down instantly, took careful aim at one of the charging Germans through my gunsight and squeezed the trigger. He flung his arms up over his head and fell down dead, shot through the head. I felt a sensation surge through my whole body. I was no longer a zombie. My life force had come surging back. I was alive and for the first time I felt that I had a chance to come out of this battle.

At this very moment I was a veteran combat soldier. I continued to shoot the attacking Germans until they finally stopped coming. The battle was over. After such intense fighting it was very strange how suddenly the battle ended. How quiet everything had become. A feeling of disbelief it was over. At the time it seemed as if it would never end.

This account is one of many to be found in Gerald Astor (Ed) A Blood-Dimmed Tide: The Battle of the Bulge by the Men Who Fought It

German Grenadiers in Luxembourg during the Ardenne Offensive.
German Grenadiers in Luxembourg during the Ardenne Offensive.

Nightmare of the hellship Oryoku Maru continues

On the morning of December 15, 1944, aircraft from the USS Hornet again attacked the Oryoku Maru as it was moving across Subic Bay toward Olongapo Point.  This time one bomb made a direct hit on the hatch of the aft cargo hold killing about 250 POWs. Later that morning the surviving POWs were allowed to jump off and swim to shore.
On the morning of December 15, 1944, aircraft from the USS Hornet again attacked the Oryoku Maru as it was moving across Subic Bay toward Olongapo Point. This time one bomb made a direct hit on the hatch of the aft cargo hold killing about 250 POWs. Later that morning the surviving POWs were allowed to jump off and swim to shore.

The Japanese liner Oryoku Maru, setting out for Japan from the Philippines, had come under repeated attack from US aircraft on the 14th December. The 1600 POWs who were crammed into the stifling heat of the holds had suffered horrific conditions during that day and the following night.

On the morning of the 15th it was realised that the damage to the Oryoku Maru was so great that she could not continue. As the Japanese prepared to abandon ship the POWs were asked to get into groups of 25. They would then be released in these groups and allowed to swim to the nearby shore.

After his ordeal of the previous day it might seem that things could not get worse for George L. Curtis. He was watching from below the deck cover, as planes from the USS Hornet returned, this time with bombs:

It was evident that this attack was different than any we had gone through before. The bombs seemed to be heavier and the concentration seemed to be on this ship we were on. I saw one of the boys peel off and it seemed he was headed directly for this particular hatch. His machine guns were spurting flame and I could follow the tracer bullets. They were leaving my vision to land forward. At about some 1500 feet, he pulled out of his dive.

I saw the two bombs leave his plane, wobble a minute, then head for the ship. I followed the flight of the missile, fascinated, and it seemed that it was heading right for this hold. It didn’t, though. It landed so close that it knocked the planks loose that were partially covering the hatch along with three I-beams.

I must have passed out for awhile, and when I came to I couldn’t move. The hold was practically clear of men and I was pinned down so that I couldn’t move. Men were over me removing a beam that was laying across my legs and they felt numb. Another piece of debris was across my back and that, too, felt as though something was wrong. After a bit, I was liberated and I found that at least no bones were broken but I could hardly move my left leg.

The hold by now was full of smoke and there was a definite list to the ship toward the port side. There were many dead and wounded men under the debris, how many I don’t know. I was able to aid a little in clearing some of the wreckage from the men pinned under the hatch covers and the I-beams and I am sure that there was no living person in the hold when I started to make it to the ladder to get out. My leg still bothered quite a bit, but my head was clearing.

When I reached the deck, very few remained on board. I still had my belt on with the two empty canteens attached to my belt, but I started to look around for a life preserver as there were many scattered on the deck. Dead were everywhere, mostly Jap soldiers, and the decks were littered with personal belongings of both American prisoners and Japanese.

[After evading Japanese guards who were shooting at men in the water Curtis managed to jump off the ship]…

I kept swimming rather slowly, conserving my strength. My leg started to act up a bit, so I kicked along with my right leg and scanned the water looking for any more weak swimmers that I might come upon. Planes came flying over again but terribly high up, but I was hoping that I would be on shore should they start another run to sink the ship.

I didn’t want to be in the water if they started bombing again for I was not sure what effect a bomb landing in the water would have on a swimmer. When I was half way to the shore, four planes came from nowhere flying no more than a few hundred feet above the water which was filled with frantically shouting and waving Americans.

One peeled off, came still lower and definitely dipped his wings in recognition of us. After that, I felt sure that there would be no more bombing for the time being at least, and I again leisurely swam on. Again I looked back at the ship and now it was really afire. Smoke was belching from many parts and I thought I saw flames emerging from an area about where the entrance to our former hold was situated. Most smoke seemed to come from the stern.

As I arrived near shore, I began to feel chilled and very tired. I had been in the water for nearly half an hour and, for the moment, I didn’t think I’d make the short remaining distance, but I managed. As my feet touched bottom, a Navy officer helped drag me to dry land on the beach.

I tried to stand but couldn’t make it. I was completely exhausted; my leg was swelling badly and a large black and blue spot covered the area from the knee to my waistline. It wasn’t broken, though. I remained where I had been aided on the beach, trying to get up enough strength to carry on to follow the rest of the men that seemed to be heading in the brush through an opening off the beach.

A Jap guard came over to where I lay and started to prod me on with his bayonet. I didn’t move fast enough to suit him so he jabbed a little harder. The bayonet entered my bad leg in two places. I didn’t feel it though, but as soon as I was on my feet and laboriously making my way to follow the line of men in front of me, my leg started bleeding profusely, running down my leg and leaving a small pool of blood with each step I took.

Just as I was to turn off the beach and head through the brush, Commander Joses took me by the arm and sat me down at a place the prisoner doctors had set up to take care of those too sick or wounded to walk further. He had the bayonet wound treated in no time and I was started on my way with the rest of the men, barefooted, and so tired and weary.

The whole remarkable account, together with more background, can be read at the website of his niece Linda Dahl.

Detail from the picture above showing the splashes in the water as the POWs were swimming to shore.
Detail from the picture above showing the splashes in the water as the POWs were swimming to shore.

POWs under attack on the hellship Oryoku Maru

A pre war post card of the Japanese liner the Oryoku Maru. The prisoners were packed into the holds of the ship, below decks.
A pre war post card of the Japanese liner the Oryoku Maru. The prisoners were packed into the holds of the ship, below decks.
Aircraft from the USS Hornet sighted the Oryoku Maru on December 14, 1944 as it moved north along the west coast of Bataan Peninsula and attacked it many times that day.  A high level photograph from one of the attacking aircraft taken late in the day.
Aircraft from the USS Hornet sighted the Oryoku Maru on December 14, 1944 as it moved north along the west coast of Bataan Peninsula and attacked it many times that day. A high level photograph from one of the attacking aircraft taken late in the day.

George L. Curtis had been a manager for the Packard company in Manila, Philippines when war broke out. 1942 had seen him taken prisoner by the Japanese along with all surviving US service personnel on the islands. He was to endure the horrors of the Japanese prison camps for the next two years.

Their prospects brightened with US invasion of the Philippines – but their hopes were short lived. On the 13th December hundreds had been packed into the holds of the Oryoku Maru and told their destination was Japan. Below deck conditions were terrible, the men were closely packed in and suffered in the stifling heat. Lack of food and water made conditions worse.

This was only the beginning. As the ship crossed Subic Bay on the 14th it came under attack from fighters from the USS Hornet. Successive waves of fighters harassed the ship all day long, with attacks separated by half hour lulls. Below deck conditions got progressively worse:

I spent the better part of the day on the deck just under the hatch. I tried earlier to get back a little further but the air was so foul and it was so hot that I chose the possibilities of being hit by a stray bullet rather than suffer through the stifling heat back under the hatch bulkhead. About the only way I could be seriously hurt was if a bomb was to enter the compartment where I was, and if one were to enter the hold through the open hatch, even those in the far corners of the compartment wouldn’t be saved.

Most of our casualties of this day’s activity were caused by stray bullets and the fragments of stray bullets ricocheting from the bulkhead that was the upper half of the hold. All day, most of us knew death was very close. One man next to me was praying continuously. During the thick of the bombing, someone started the Lord’s Prayer and all joined in. Somehow after that we felt a great deal better.

They had sent down about four 5-gallon cans which were to be used for feces and urine. During the air raids, we were not allowed to empty them so that they ran over. Feces and urine were everywhere. Most of the men were suffering from dysentery or diarrhea. It goes without saying what an awful mess we were compelled to be in. The Jap guards refused to empty these cans and would not allow us to send a detail to do the job.

Commander Bridget was the officer in charge of our hold and he did an excellent job in trying to keep order and to build up morale to the extent that I don’t think I was ever awake when he wasn’t up on the ladder leading out of the hold doing all that was humanly possible. During the last few bombings, most of us actually wanted the ship to be hit for we knew that now we were close to shore and if we were hit and sunk, some of us could make it to land and out of this awful hell ship.

Being anchored let no air into the hold at all and the men are getting fretful. This was a dreadful night. The lack of food plus no issue of water have some of the men in a deplorable mental and physical condition. The results are beyond the power of imagination. Commander Bridget and several other of the older officers attempted to quiet the men but it was an almost impossible task. All night long the commands of “Quiet, men!” and “At ease!” were repeated over and over again. Men went stark mad. Others resorted to blood sucking. Many men, due to their extreme thirst, would grab canteens that had been used as urinals and drink the contents without thought of the results this would bring on.

Due to the threats of the Jap guards to throw hand grenades into the hold if the men were not quiet, it was necessary to muffle many men who were completely out of their heads and creating the most disturbance. In some instances, this action resulted in the death of the man. The hold can best be described as a sweltering mass of thirsty, fear-stricken, mad human beings.

Chips Bolan, a naval corpsman, was acting up so badly that those selected to keep order were commanded to tie him up to the escape ladder. This seemed to quiet him for awhile but it wasn’t very long before he started in with the most awful yells. On a few occasions, the Jap guard came to quiet us and this time he thrust his rifle over the side of the entrance and we all thought he would empty its contents at random at us lying on the deck.

One of the men went over again to quiet Chips and he got a painful kick in the groin that flattened him. Then the warrant officer put in charge by Commander Bridget had to take over with the result that he had to knock Chips unconscious. Unfortunately, he hit him too hard for the blow killed Chips and he was carried topside.

This was not the only death that occurred at the hands of our men. Another young lad went out of his head and began calling to the Japanese sentry and attempting to get up the ladder to get at him. The gist of his shouts was that he had suffered all that he intended to and that he would kill the dirty bastard or die in the attempt. In order to protect the majority of those of us in the hold from threatened hand grenades, it was necessary to quiet this man; such effort being too great for the blow killed him.

Several stabbings occurred among the men, mostly to get what little water that the victim had held onto. All told I believe seven men were found killed, not to mention the 38 that died from suffocation in this rear hold. Among them were some of the hardest working naval doctors we had aboard and my good friend Calvin Coolidge, and Commander Heddy.

All last night, the dead were passed over our heads as we sat on the deck at the base of the ladder, and we had a hard time of it getting those in the back up front due to the crowded conditions in the hold. So far, we have had no water or food, but maybe we’ll be hit early in the morning and be either killed or make shore; anything, or any place but this stinking hole.

The whole remarkable account, together with more background, can be read at the website of his niece Linda Dahl.

View of the island of the U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS Hornet (CV-12) April 1945. Grumman F6F Hellcat fighters from Fighting Squadron VF-17 Jolly Rogers are visible on deck. April 1945
View of the island of the U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS Hornet (CV-12) April 1945. Grumman F6F Hellcat fighters from Fighting Squadron VF-17 Jolly Rogers are visible on deck. April 1945

Sachsenhausen concentration camp – new arrivals

Sachsenhausen, north of Berlin, was established in 1936 for German detainees. It was also an administrative and training centre for the SS. Prisoners in the concentration camp at Sachsenhausen, Germany, December 19, 1938.
Sachsenhausen, north of Berlin, was established in 1936 for German detainees. It was also an administrative and training centre for the SS. Prisoners in the concentration camp at Sachsenhausen, Germany, December 19, 1938.
Sachsenhausen concentration camp, north of Oranienburg, which, along with its more than 50 satellite camps, provided the armaments industry in northern Germany with cheap slave labor, particularly during the Second World War. Roll call on a winters day, undated.
Sachsenhausen concentration camp, north of Oranienburg, which, along with its more than 50 satellite camps, provided the armaments industry in northern Germany with cheap slave labor, particularly during the Second World War. Roll call on a winters day, undated.

As the Nazis realised that they would have to start closing down their death camps in the east, prisoners were transferred further west to established concentration camps. Typically these were not extermination camps but concentration camps designed to punish rather than kill all of the inmates. Conditions would change with the new arrivals.

At first trains were used for transferring such prisoners, if none were available then forced marches were used. The conditions on the marches were appalling and often became instruments of torture and death themselves. Although Jews were prominent among their number, many other people were caught up, including the citizens who had been forcibly displaced from Warsaw.

Sachsenhausen had been opened in 1936 for German political prisoners. The regime was harsh, executions were common, as well as deaths from other causes. But the prisoners here saw a step change in conditions with the arrival of the transferees from the east.

Odd Nansen was a political prisoner from Norway, with a relatively privileged position, able to receive occasional food parcels from home. His diary, kept in secret at great risk, covered events in the camp – and he also sought to record the stories of other inmates:

13th December.

One big transport after another is arriving in camp. From Auschwitz, from other camps in Poland, from camps in Germany, and “evacuated” Jews by thousands from Hungary.

Two thousand six hundred Jews arrived the other day from Budapest. The transport hadn’t taken more than three days. Eighty died on the way, and when they got here they were left standing out in the cold most of the night. Eight died on the parade-ground. None had had a drop of water for three days. Food they had brought from home.

I remember, when the first transport of “evacuees” arrived from Warsaw, we were indignant that women, children and the aged should be dragged off in such transports. Now there aren’t many who react. Children, some under ten years old, are detained as convicts here and in other camps. The women are sent to camps of their own.

The aged are allowed to die here. The process is short, but not painless. It’s terrible to see them. Those who come from Poland, for instance, have nothing to put on but the rags issued here, and it’s the depth of winter. Only a very few have anything on their feet but wooden boards tied on with straps or string.

Of course they get pneumonia, tuberculosis and other illnesses and succumb in hundreds. They totter round for a while, go into the Revier [the camp ‘hospital’ or sickbay] (unless they’re Jews, in which case they’re not admitted) and there the crown is set on the work, especially in the Schonungsblocken [a block within the sickbay area], where they’re treated more like animals than anything else.

If one goes through one of the Schonungsblocken (as I have been doing regularly of late), one keeps on seeing living skeletons. Starving Poles, especially those with Durchfall (diarrhoea) who can’t retain any of the miserable fare they get. Diet? One can only laugh. An unknown concept.

A Jewish builder from Budapest, whom I’ve got to know, and who was on the terrible march from South Serbia to Germany, told me that one of his arms began to swell up and ache. He went to the doctor, who diagnosed periostitis, put the arm in splints and bandaged it, explaining that it was due to under-nourishment and the lack of certain substances in his food. He must eat more, a more nourishing and varied diet-fat for one thing. Merely a gibe; a frigid sneer.

The other evening I was talking to an old Pole in that Schonungsblocken. He was sixty-seven, but looked ninety-seven; bones, sinews and skin apart, I’ll wager his flesh and stomach didn’t weigh five kilos.

That he could hold himself up was a miracle, but obviously a miracle which would soon cease. He had great difficulty in speaking, and he spoke nothing but Polish. An interpreter translated. He was a Polish peasant from the Warsaw district, and had been “evacuated” here, starving and suffering; of the rest of his family, children and wife, he knew nothing. They had lost each other during the “evacuation”.

Now he had Durchfall and couldn’t eat. He had already gone out, was no longer a man, only a poor, suffering, still living creature waiting for peace. There are hundreds and thousands like him, innocent, harmless—suffering human beings.

See Odd Nansen: Day After Day

18,000 Soviet prisoners of war were murdered in 1941 after a three-month march across Germany - Sachsenhausen was used as an experimental site for the gas chambers.
18,000 Soviet prisoners of war were murdered in 1941 after a three-month march across Germany – Sachsenhausen was used as an experimental site for the gas chambers.