Another day, another infantry attack

A soldier 'firing on German positions' from a ruined house in the village of Bakenhoven, Holland, during 12th Corp's offensive in the Dieteren area, north of Sittard, 16 January 1945.
A soldier ‘firing on German positions’ from a ruined house in the village of Bakenhoven, Holland, during 12th Corp’s offensive in the Dieteren area, north of Sittard, 16 January 1945.
Troops from 4/5 Royal Scots Fusiliers, 52nd Infantry Division, in the ruins of the village of Stein, Holland, 19 January 1945.
Troops from 4/5 Royal Scots Fusiliers, 52nd Infantry Division, in the ruins of the village of Stein, Holland, 19 January 1945.

In Holland the British Army were trying to keep the pressure on the Germans with continued attacks. The 49th (West Riding) Infantry Division found itself in a particularly wet and uncomfortable spot near Nijmegen, where it was often impossible to dig trenches because the water table was so high.

Kasteel Hemmen or Castle Hemmen was not a castle at all but a fine country house. It had already been captured by the Allies some six weeks before, but they had to abandon it when the Germans flooded the the surrounding area, leaving it in a very exposed position. Now another attack was to be made.

The plan was for the infantry to advance supported by tanks, with an artillery barrage to support them as they made the final attack. Of course things did not go according to plan, the tanks were unable to traverse the icy ground – but the attack went ahead anyway. Corporal John Oakley’s platoon was to make the a frontal assault up a tree lined avenue, while two other platoons advanced through the woods.

A pre war postcard of Kasteel Hemmen
A pre war postcard of Kasteel Hemmen.

Oakley, eighteen years old at the time, describes the attack on the 20th January 1945:

However, our progress up the tree-lined road continued. Lieutenant Kernick was leading the Platoon up the right side of the road, with two sections. I was leading the remainder, my section on the left using the trees as cover, darting from one tree-trunk to the next, exposing ourselves as little as possible to the small-arms fire, which was increasing as we got nearer.

At this stage we would have welcomed the artillery and mortar barrage on the enemy positions to keep their heads down as the German defenders, now about 200 yards away, were able to fire at us and the rest of our Company on the left, almost with impunity, apart from a few bursts of fire from our bren-gunners. The German defensive positions were in front of ‘The Castle’ and appeared to be comprised of low mounds of stone and rubble from the ruined building protecting their trenches, which could not be dug very deeply because they would have flooded from the general surrounding water-level.

The final advance, over about 100 yards to the objective would have been suicidal without an artillery barrage and we had been suffering casualties on both sides of the road as we were nearing the end of the avenue. At this stage, Lieutenant Kernick shouted across the road “how many of you are over there Corporal Davies?” Up until then I had been too busy to note who I had with me while bullets were cracking past me or thudding into the tree trunks which I was using as my cover. I was surprised to find that I was on my own and reported accordingly. He shouted “We are not going to get much further, give us some covering fire and we will get ourselves out of here”. I poked my head round the base of the tree-trunk protecting me and popped away with my sten-gun at the German positions. My efforts were probably completely ineffective as this crude little submachine gun was very much a close range weapon.

I then had a better idea. In my left hand ammunition pouch I had the spare magazines for my sten-gun but in the right hand pouch I had a Mills grenade which is a high-explosive and also a phosphorous grenade. I had never used either in combat but had done so in training and from that experience I knew that the phosphorous grenade created a lot of smoke. I threw it into the road and it made ideal cover for our withdrawal.

The first man I passed on the way back was Private Brown – “Brownie” to everybody in the Company – I don’t think anybody ever knew his Christian name!. He was courageous, almost to the point of recklessness sometimes. He was the comedian of the Platoon and one of his regular remarks was “No bloody German is ever going to kill me”. He had a terrible wound in his head and was dead. “Brownie” always wore his steel helmet on the back of his head and it appeared to me that from the position and severity of the wound, a bullet had hit the under rim of his helmet and ricocheted down into his skull, whereas if he had worn his helmet in the proper manner the bullet probably would have hit the crown of his helmet and been deflected upwards, leaving him unharmed and no doubt he would have regaled us with some amusing remarks about the incident later.

I was relieved to find Ellis and Bryson, our Bren-gun team both uninjured a little further behind, told them we were abandoning our advance for now and to get back to somewhere safer with the rest of the Company while we still had the smoke cover, through which the occasional burst of small arms fire was coming.

I then came upon “Hughsie”, Private Hughes. He was the veteran of our Platoon – 26 years of age and he seemed like an old man compared with the rest of us. He often grumbled that he was a trained driver/mechanic and he had no business in a Rifle Company. Hughes had a bullet wound in the chest, together with some lesser wounds in his arm and he was in a bad way. With that, two of our stretcher bearers arrived on the other side of the wide water-filled ditch at our side of the road.

Hughes was a smallish man and I managed to lift him to pass him over to the stretcher bearers but had to do so via the icy cold water which was about three feet deep. Hughes was groaning and was weakly muttering something incoherent in between his groans but was being comforted in a rather rough sort of way during the handover to the stretcher bearers who were saying something like “come on Hughsie, stop your moaning and don’t be such a cissie, we’ll soon put you right.” He died some minutes later.

I got out of the water on the ‘safe’ side of the ditch where the remainder of the Company , (including the rest of our Platoon who had got back across the road safely, bringing their wounded), had taken up defensive positions – the ground was rather too hard to dig in and in any case the water table would have flooded our slit trenches once we were down a couple of feet at the most.

The next morning, with ample artillery support, and our own bren-gun carriers (light armoured vehicles) equipped with flame-throwers, ‘The Castle’ was captured with comparative ease and few casualties on our side

Private Thomas Vernon Brown, service nr. 14719016, died 20 January 1945 at age 21.

Private Albert Hughes, service nr. 4198168, died 20 January 1945 at age 26.

Read the whole of John Oakley’s account at secondworldwar.nl, a site with a number of recollections by Allied soldiers including men from the US Rangers and other American units.

Carriers and other vehicles including ambulances near a ruined windmill during the advance in Holland, January 1945.
Carriers and other vehicles including ambulances near a ruined windmill during the advance in Holland, January 1945.

Youngest Victoria Cross in the war is posthumous

5.5-inch howitzers of 236 Battery, 59th Medium Regiment, Royal Artillery, firing at dawn, before 12 Corps' attack in the Sittard area of Holland, 16 January 1945.
5.5-inch howitzers of 236 Battery, 59th Medium Regiment, Royal Artillery, firing at dawn, before 12 Corps’ attack in the Sittard area of Holland, 16 January 1945.
Infantry of 6th Cameronians, 52nd (Lowland) Division, passing Sherman tanks near Havert in Germany, 18 January 1945.
Infantry of 6th Cameronians, 52nd (Lowland) Division, passing Sherman tanks near Havert in Germany, 18 January 1945.
Men of 4/5th Royal Scots Fusiliers pass between a Sherman and a Churchill tank during 52nd (Lowland) Division's attack towards Stein from Tuddern, 18 January 1945
Men of 4/5th Royal Scots Fusiliers pass between a Sherman and a Churchill tank during 52nd (Lowland) Division’s attack towards Stein from Tuddern, 18 January 1945

While the US Army were fighting against determined German resistance in the ‘Saar Triangle’, further north the British were encountering similar difficulties in the Roer Triangle, on the border of Holland and Germany, between the Maas and the Roer rivers. Operation Blackcock had been launched on the 14th and also sought to breach the Siegfried Line and push into Germany.

Nineteen year old Dennis Donnini was from Easington Colliery, County Durham, the son of an Italian immigrant father, Alfredo Donnini, and English mother, Catherine Brown. He had two older brothers, Alfred had been captured at Dunkirk in 1940 and was a prisoner of war, and Louis had been killed in May 1944. His two sisters served in the ATS in Britain. There was little doubting the family’s loyalty to the Crown, yet his father Alfredo had been interned as an ‘Enemy Alien’ because he had been born in Italy, even though he had lived in Britain for over 40 years.

Dennis Donnini
Dennis Donnini

At just 4ft 10ins tall Dennis Donnini would only just have made it into the British Army. He seems to have been full of determination, he told his mother when he left home for the last time “When I get there, I’ll finish the war”:

In North-West Europe, on 18th January 1945, a Battalion of The Royal Scots Fusiliers supported by tanks was the leading Battalion in the assault of the German positions between the rivers Roer and Maas. This consisted of a broad belt of minefields and wire on the other side of a stream.

As the result of a thaw the armour was unable to cross the stream and the infantry had to continue the assault without the support of the tanks. Fusilier Donnini’s platoon was ordered to attack a small village.

As they left their trenches the platoon came under concentrated machine gun and rifle fire from the houses and Fusilier Donnini was hit by a bullet in the head. After a few minutes he recovered consciousness, charged down thirty yards of open road and threw a grenade into the nearest window.

The enemy fled through the gardens of four houses, closely pursued by Fusilier Donnini and the survivors of his platoon. Under heavy fire at seventy yards range Fusilier Donnini and two companions crossed an open space and reached the cover of a wooden barn, thirty yards from the enemy trenches.

Fusilier Donnini, still bleeding profusely from his wound, went into the open under intense close range fire and carried one of his companions, who had been wounded, into the barn. Taking a Bren gun he again went into the open, firing as he went.

He was wounded a second time but recovered and went on firing until a third bullet hit a grenade which he was carrying and killed him.

The superb gallantry and self-sacrifice of Fusilier Donnini drew the enemy fire away from his companions on to himself. As the result of this, the platoon were able to capture the position, accounting for thirty Germans and two machine guns.

Throughout this action, fought from beginning to end at point blank range, the dash, determination and magnificent courage of Fusilier Donnini enabled his comrades to overcome an enemy more than twice their own number.

Men of 4/5th Royal Scots Fusiliers interrogate German prisoners during 52nd (Lowland) Division's attack towards Stein from Tuddern, Germany, 18 January 1945
Men of 4/5th Royal Scots Fusiliers interrogate German prisoners during 52nd (Lowland) Division’s attack towards Stein from Tuddern, Germany, 18 January 1945
Men of 7th Armoured Division stand over the corpse of one of the defenders of Schilberg, 19 January 1945.
Men of 7th Armoured Division stand over the corpse of one of the defenders of Schilberg, 19 January 1945.

Cut off in Butzdorf, surrounded by Germans

The sketch map that Morton completed just after the Battle of Butzdorf.
The sketch map that Morton D. Elevitch completed just after the Battle of Butzdorf.

The closing stages of the Battle of the Bulge were fought just as ferociously as the beginning, if the Allies were winning it was at a price. In many places the gains that were made were subjected to immediate and repeated German counter-attacks. For example the US 90th Division seized the town of Oberwampach and then spent 36 hours facing down nine counter-attacks.

With the Germans on the back foot the US Army tried to exploit the situation with another push into the Saar ‘triangle’, between the Moselle and Saar rivers, a move which would take them over the Siegfried line. German resistance was galvanised against any such breakthrough.

For the infantry men of the 94th Division who found themselves at the spearhead of the attack, nearly a week would be spent virtually cut off in the town of Butzdorf. Private Morton D. Elevitch found himself and part of his platoon cut off in a ruined house by themselves. On the 17th they found themselves facing a combined Panzer and infantry attack:

Walters is popping away at the heads. I tell him don’t, we’ll only draw direct 88 fire. I was right. The room was quivering. Our ears were ringing. Our chests were throbbing. We shook like wet washing — a cold, creepy uncontrollable shaking. Only our minds remained clear. The rubble was piling high in the center of the room… our ceiling was ready to bury us beneath it.

Solemnly we discussed our procedure when the Germans, expected momentarily, entered the house. “Walters,” I say, “it seems we are in a position not particularly desirable to our state of welfare. Our careers are jeopardized. I strongly urge that we prepare for the worst.” We agree to hide in wine barrels, hoping for an eventual American victory. Someone is pounding on the wall.

Chandler is hit… a slug caught him in the head… he plunged head first down the cellar stairs… Walter’s eyes are big and brown and expectant. For the first time in our lives we know the feeling of utter hopelessness, the dread sensation of approaching doom. The turmoil within us almost gives way, but we are listening for our artillary. When it comes, it is right on top of us.

Luckily the patterns had been drawn in on us, keeping the Germans at a reasonable distance. This factor alone, saved us.

Walters has his hands in his pockets, looking out the window. A shell bursts outside the window to my right rear. Shrapnel wirrs across the room, cuts through Tom like a sewing needle, slicing a path from head to stomach. He explodes apart in a torrent of blood. “Get out the door!” I shout. With his hands still in his pockets, he turns halfway, starts to jerk forward, choking, gasping, sputtering, then settles face down to the floor, gurgling away his life.

At the head of the stairs I collapse in a pool of Chandler’s blood, tell them Walters is hit. Kettler and Doc take off and return with something still. Jenkins and I force our eyes away. We know Walters is dead.

We give up our guard posts altogether, leave one man atop the stairs, and slump down in the basement. Chandler is groaning. Boomer is shaken to tears at the sight of Tom. He tells us to pull out. The machine gunners had long ago departed. We’re to try to reach Tittengen under smoke.

At the door Chandler breaks down: “I can’t make it.” “You’ve got to try.” One by one we make our suicide dashes, passing pleading men. I sail through a doorway of beckoning hands ahead of a whistling 88. Now that we’re gathered in this place and the CP next door, the Germans can concentrate their fire. They do.

Men keep toppling over my shoulders. I struggle up for air. A wild-eyed kid holds up his hand. “Look, my thumb’s blown off!” The ragged stump is maroon like our basement floor at home. We’re all bunched up on a stairway. Guys are lying on the floor and propped in corners. I look around . . . what is going on? I see the drawn, bearded faces, torn clothes, staring eyes, yards of dirty bandages. Men are muttering, babbling. No, I decide, it isn’t possible. The shell—shocked stand up and look at us. “Can’t you see I’m bleeding?” they whimper. No one answers…

We finally crowd into a tiny room beneath some stairs … still the men on the outside keep getting hit. For four hours we stand shoulder to shoulder, softly talking, sweating, shaking. The smoke had failed us — lifted before it hit the ground. We’re to try to make a run for freedom when it gets dark. Meanwhile we’re ordered to return to our positions.

Some men go back, find Germans, kill them, rip open ten in one boxes, urinate on the food [to deny it to the Germans who were often relying on capturing Allied supplies], return to us. Others go after the wounded. Sgt. Flynn lugs in a box of ten in ones. Courteously we divide up the cold food and pass it around. From a can of corn I get needed water.

This is just a small part of the vivid description that Morton D. Elevitch jotted down immediately after that battle and later developed into a more coherent piece. His letters home served as an outlet for him, containing not only contemporaneous accounts but cartoons and sketches, they were finally published in 2003 Dog Tags Yapping: The World War II Letters of a Combat GI.

Prisoners of War were used extensively by the 94th Division to carry their many casualties to the rear.
Prisoners of War were used extensively by the 94th Division to carry their many casualties to the rear.

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.

A Platoon watches and waits in the snow

Infantry of 53rd (Welsh) Division in the snow near Hotton, Belgium, 4 January 1945.
Infantry of 53rd (Welsh) Division in the snow near Hotton, Belgium, 4 January 1945.
3-inch mortar team of 2nd Monmouthshire Regiment in action during the advance of 53rd (Welsh) Division towards Laroche in Belgium, 5 January 1945.
3-inch mortar team of 2nd Monmouthshire Regiment in action during the advance of 53rd (Welsh) Division towards Laroche in Belgium, 5 January 1945.

While the southern end of the British forces in Holland and Belgium joined forces with the US Army to counter the German Ardennes offensive, the remainder of the British line was largely static.

As a young officer with the Kings Own Scottish Borderers Peter White was coming to terms with his responsibilities. The troops were spread out over a long thin line – and there was room for the enemy to infiltrate between his own positions and the next regiment along, over 500 yards away. Just because it was a relatively quiet sector did not make it any less tense, and there was more time to dwell on the discomforts:

One of the most unexpected and odd reactions I had begun to notice, and for which I was most grateful on my later occasions in attack, was, firstly, how much responsibility kept one’s mind off oneself and next, however afraid one was — which for hours at a time might be intense – I found the fear of showing it to one’s men (which would have been fatal) was always so much stronger that in effect it cancelled the primary fear out. This discovery at times so intrigued me as to cause a paradoxical feeling almost of elation.

To move in the Platoon forward areas was a very tricky job and a real nightmare after dark as the ground between the trees in a 40 yard deep belt was criss-crossed with numerous thin steel wires attached to hand grenades and magnesium flares bound to the trees. If any person was careless or unfamiliar with the traps a touch on a wire set off a glare of light or an explosion, sometimes both, by means of pull-igniters.

To add to this menace one often had to contend with a blanket of snow covering the wires, darkness and a batch of falling mortar bombs to speed one’s steps to comparative shelter. These trip-wires and aa belt of anti-tank and anti-personnel mines out in the field were, together with the tired eyes of underslept Jocks, the only way of being warned in time of an attack or patrol coming on top of us.

As the enemy patrols usually wore white smocks as snow camouflage they were hard enough to detect visually even in daylight. Many a time the weight of snow on the wires or an overtired Jock whose eyes had started to play tricks with him set off a burst of firing, a blast of explosion or a glare of brilliant light.

Frantic activity ensued until the cause was established and then a message was sent back to a worried Company HQ to explain the alarm. The wide gap between ourselves and the Royal Scots caused me continued uneasiness.

I was amazed at the way the Jocks took to and stuck the appalling conditions day after day in the cold and night after night with up to seventeen hours of darkness to anxiously watch through. Each slit trench had two Jocks who shared the duty in two-hour shifts of watching and attempted sleep in the frozen mud and straw of the trench bottom in hoar-frosted clothes.

Cpl Beal, one of my Section Commanders in the most isolated of the Platoon positions overlooking a snow-covered track into the woods, set up notoriety for seeing things during his spells on stag. Almost every night we heard the lonely chatter and echo of his Sten gun at some time or other. He was killed a few weeks later.

It was becoming steadily more difficult to keep properly awake or anywhere near warm, both problems being linked into one as a vicious circle: it was nearly impossible to get warm enough to get to sleep and the less sleep we had the colder we felt.

Our cold or tepid scratch meals of tins and biscuits, sweets, chocolate and bread probably did not help. Each plop of snow slipping off a tree somewhere or a twig cracking in the frost sounded to our taut senses like stealthy footfalls and brought one with a jerk out of chilled tired-eyed fatigue on stage to peer with anxious intensity and quickened pulse into the monochrome of snow-blanketed monotony.

See Peter White: With the Jocks: A Soldier’s Struggle for Europe 1944-45

Private G Carnally eats his midday meal in a trench in the snow, while manning part of the front line along the River Maas in Holland, 8 January 1945.
Private G Carnally eats his midday meal in a trench in the snow, while manning part of the front line along the River Maas in Holland, 8 January 1945.
Vickers machine gun crew of 'A' Company, 2nd Middlesex Regiment, 3rd Division at Grubbenvorst, Holland, 13 January 1945.
Vickers machine gun crew of ‘A’ Company, 2nd Middlesex Regiment, 3rd Division at Grubbenvorst, Holland, 13 January 1945.

101st Airborne morale high as Bastogne is ‘relieved’

Typical conditions for the troops travelling up to Bastogne to break through.
Typical conditions for the troops travelling up to Bastogne to break through.
Infantrymen, attached to the 4th Armored Division, fire at German troops, in the American advance to relieve the pressure on surrounded airborne troops in Bastogne. December 27, 1944.
Infantrymen, attached to the 4th Armored Division, fire at German troops, in the American advance to relieve the pressure on surrounded airborne troops in Bastogne. December 27, 1944.

The German attempt to break through the Allied lines at Bastogne finally came to nothing. The besieged town had received air drops on the 25th and 26th. Late on the 26th outside units broke through and this relief line was consolidated on the 27th.

It had been a hard fought battle. The Germans knew that their whole offensive would come unstuck if they could not break through here. The defenders, almost all of them pushed into hastily prepared positions at short notice, many of them ill equipped for the winter conditions, had held off repeated attacks that grew ever more desperate as the Germans realised they were running out of time.

The 101st Airborne Division, and a large number of smaller units attached or incorporated within it, were awarded a Presidential Unit Citation:

These units distinguished themselves in combat against powerful and aggressive enemy forces composed of elements of 8 German divisions during the period from 18 December to 27 December 1944 by extraordinary heroism and gallantry in defense of the key communications center of Bastogne, Belgium.

Essential to a large scale exploitation of his break-through into Belgium and northern Luxembourg, the enemy attempted to seize Bastogne by attacking constantly and savagely with the best of his armor and infantry.

Without benefit of prepared defenses, facing almost overwhelming odds and with very limited and fast dwindling supplies, these units maintained a high combat morale and an impenetrable defense, despite extremely heavy bombing, intense artillery fire, and constant attacks from infantry and armor on all sides of their completely cut off and encircled position. This masterful and grimly determined defense denied the enemy even momentary success in an operation for which he paid dearly in men, material, and eventually morale.

The outstanding courage and resourcefulness and undaunted determination of this gallant force is in keeping with the highest traditions of the service.

U.S. troops pinned down in the Ardennes by German troops -  December 1944  U.S. Army
U.S. troops pinned down in the Ardennes by German troops – December 1944
U.S. Army

General Orders No. 17, War Department, 13 March 1945.

General McAuliffe, commanding the 101st, who had responded to the German invitation to surrender with the single word ‘NUTS’, had not seen the situation as nearly as desperate as others had:

It didn’t occur to us, until it was all over, that the eyes of the world were on the 101st Airborne Division and the attached armour during the defence of Bastogne.

The first thing we heard was that we’d been ‘rescued’ by the 4th Armoured Division. Now I, and everyone else in the 101st, resent the implication that we were rescued or that we needed to be rescued.

When General Taylor arrived on the 27th the first thing he asked me was what kind of shape we were in. I told him, ‘Why, we’re in fine shape: we’re ready to take the offensive.’ General Taylor said: ‘I should have known it, but all that stuff I read in the newspapers was beginning to worry me just a little.’

The fact is we were thinking about what a tough time the Kraut was having. We Weren’t alarmed about our own position at all. After all, we’d deliberately jumped into that kind of position in Normandy and Holland.

For the first three days we gave the Germans the licking of their lives . . . the Troop Carrier Command did a great job on the supply end too. They brought us all the ammunition, rations, and other equipment that we needed. Our morale was always tops.

Good morale is just as contagious as panic can be. We had several thousand reinforcements — attached troops — and they caught the infectious courage of the old men of the 101st right away.

Airborne Divisions always have good morale. We were fortunate enough to have been associated with the First and Sixth British Airborne Division up around Arnhem. They don’t come any better.

No one should be surprised at what the 101st Airborne Division did at Bastogne. That’s what should be expected any time of airborne troops. With that kind of troops I, as a commander, can do anything.

An aerial view of the town of Bastogne, December 1944.
An aerial view of the town of Bastogne, December 1944.

A frozen Christmas Day in the Battle of the Bulge

The weather now cleared, enabling the Allied fighter bombers to join the Ardennes battlefield. Anti-aircraft gunners watching the aerial battle, December 25,1944.
The weather now cleared, enabling the Allied fighter bombers to join the Ardennes battlefield. Anti-aircraft gunners watching the aerial battle, December 25,1944.

The weather turned clearer but colder on Christmas Day, finally allowing the Allied fighter bombers to enter the battle. The Germans remained frustrated, not having made the progress they had sought, in several places they sought to make a final push, sensing that the Allied response was now gathering pace.

For tens of thousands of men the day was spent in a slit trench on the Belgium- German border

December 25, and a Merry Christmas to you.

Last night after chow we relieved a squad that had been on line for several days. So I spent Christmas Eve and will spend Christmas Day in a dugout facing the German lines. Ah there, Adolf! Frohliche Weinachten!

It was a beautiful and grim Christmas Eve. Shorty and I spelled each other on guard throughout the bitter cold night.

The cold I could endure, but an additional misery landed on me in the middle of the night. I got the GIs! That’s always a tragedy, of course — although in nonnal life, with the luxury of a civilized bathroom at hand, it would seem only an embarrassing annoyance – but this time the tragedy was of major proportions.

You see, our dugout is on the crest of a hill, smack in the middle of an open field and with never a bush or tree to provide cover. It’s not modesty that bothers us, you understand: it’s snipers.

We peer anxiously in the direction of the German lines, unbutton our pants in the dugout, hold them up with one hand while we clamber out, and get the business over in a hurry. We wipe on the run — our naked and chilled buttocks quivering in anticipation of a bullet — and button up again when we’re once more safe in the dugout.

A half-naked man crouching on a hilltop is a defenseless creature, unnerved by the constant sense of his nakedness framed in the sights of an enemy rifle. I winced and shook each time I dropped my pants, expecting every moment to be caponized by a German sniper who combined marksmanship with a macabre sense of humor.

The artillery fire was heavy until midnight. Then it died away, became sporadic. (Because it was Christmas Eve? I wonder.) In the strange silence, the war seemed remote, and I was several thousand miles from Belgium for a few moments.

We got no breakfast this morning, Christmas morning. Our squad leader forgot to send a messenger to tell us to come to chow. We waited and hoped and peered anxiously for sight of the runner until there was no longer any point in hoping. Except that it was Christmas morning, I didn’t mind the missed meal: my interior was worn out from my late tussle with the Gls.

Later in the morning I opened a can of C rations, made a little coffee, and ate two dog biscuits. Shorty opened a can of hash and ate it cold. Christmas breakfast! We munched in unhappy silence, and I brooded over the memory of our customary Christmas stollen (how ironically German!), so richly stuffed with raisins and nuts and citron.

See Raymond Gantter: Roll Me Over: An Infantryman’s World War II

The Allied Counter Attack 25 December 1944 - 28 January 1945: Belgian civilians carrying personal possessions flee as the Germans opened an artillery barrage against Langlir in an attempt to halt the American drive on Houffalize.
The Allied Counter Attack 25 December 1944 – 28 January 1945: Belgian civilians carrying personal possessions flee as the Germans opened an artillery barrage against Langlir in an attempt to halt the American drive on Houffalize.

Not very far away Russel Albrecht was having an even worse time of it:

Then the next day was Christmas Day, and that was the day I crawled into Malmedy. I had called on the phone and asked there was any way to get some aspirin for the pain in my chest – I couldn’t stand even a teaspoon in my pocket, it felt like it was too heavy against my chest. They called back and said, “You have permission but you don’t have to do it. If you want to get on your hands and knees and crawl into Malmedy” – which was probably a quarter or a half mile, a pretty good distance. “You have our permission because there are some doctors there. You can get something from them.”

Well, then about noon on Christmas Day, that’s when I decided to go into town. I just kind of lay flat in the snow and sneaked along staying behind whatever I could. I got in there and saw some smoke coming out of a house, and I went over there. Some tankers and TDs had plugged up the windows, and they had a stove going in there. I got some hot water and made a cup of coffee, some powdered stuff, I wrote a note to Lorraine and the girls and told them to mail it.

They told me that down about three or four houses some doctors had moved in. I went down there, went in, and the doc came out of the dining room. He had a turkey leg in his hand he was chewin’ on. That’s as far as the Christmas dinners got. He stuck a thermometer in my mouth and so forth.

I sat there and he went back in to chew down some more turkey, and then he came back in and looked and kind of frowned — he got some more equipment, started testing and pretty soon he told the guys, “You get a stretcher for this guy.” They got one and I had to lay on there and they pinned a tag on my jacket: “Bronchitis, Pleurisy, and Pneumonia.”

They wouldn’t let me even get up from the stretcher, let alone go back to the hole like I was going to.

I later learned when I asked some of our fellows about my buddy in the hole that the next day he got a direct hit and was killed.

See Russel Albrecht: Finding Foxholes

The besieged troops in Bastogne received their first re-supply by air on Christmas Day.
The besieged troops in Bastogne received their first re-supply by air on Christmas Day.
Sergeant John Opanowski of the 10th Armoured Division, emerges from a dug-out built under snow in the Bastogne area. The 10th Armoured Division and the 101st Airborne Division were pinned down in the Bastogne area by General von Manteuffel's crack Panzer Divisions - the 2nd and the 116th.
Sergeant John Opanowski of the 10th Armoured Division, emerges from a dug-out built under snow in the Bastogne area. The 10th Armoured Division and the 101st Airborne Division were pinned down in the Bastogne area by General von Manteuffel’s crack Panzer Divisions – the 2nd and the 116th.

In besieged Bastogne the 101st Airborne were to come under the last but most desperate attempt by the Germans to break through the perimeter. Schuyler Jackson was in the Champs area:

They hadn’t come at our area during the first days there. The temperature, though, was around zero. There were a couple of replacements who actually froze to death while on duty. I would always have two guys go out there to keep the men awake and prevent them from freezing.

When one of our planes was shot down, I took a fleece-lined jacket from the body of one of the crew. It sounds terrible but he had no more use for it.

There was a bridge in front of us. We had planted explosives but the detonatorfroze when they hit us on Christmas Day. Their infantry rode on the tanks and we were picking them off. I got mgself a bazooka and hit one in the motor. The crew came out fighting. They did not surrender. We had to shoot them.

We had originally put mines in the road but, because we expected the relief column, we pulled them off to the side of the road. When the German tanks came, some of the commanders must have thought the roads mined. They drove off on the side and exploded our mines.

We had enough ammoat our spot and stopped them cold. The last tank was turning back, and going up a rise. I fired the bazooka – and it was a one-in-a-million shot – dropped right down the turret. Except it didn’t explode. The loader had forgotten to pull the pin on the rocket. He got some fancy cussing from me. But the tank didn’t get away. Somebody else destroyed it.

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 soldiers who attempted to storm the 101st Airborne command post in Bastogne, Belgium, lie dead on the ground after they were mowed down by American machine gun fire. The tanks, behind which they were advancing, were knocked out also. This photo was taken while Bastogne was still under seige (12/25/44)
German soldiers who attempted to storm the 101st Airborne command post in Bastogne, Belgium, lie dead on the ground after they were mowed down by American machine gun fire. The tanks, behind which they were advancing, were knocked out also. This photo was taken while Bastogne was still under seige (12/25/44)

The British 9th Royal Tank Regiment were awoken at 6.30 am on Christmas Day and half an hour later departed for Liege in Belgium to strengthen the Allied lines. Sergeant Trevor Greenwood had the benefit of of lodgings in one of the surviving civilian houses – but it was neither comfortable nor safe:

Weather bitterly cold with heavy frost all day, but good visibility and dry. Plenty of our aircraft overhead.

Flying bombs too frequent for my liking — they seem to arrive every half hour. Usually preceded by ‘siren’ giving a few seconds warning. As soon as bomb motor becomes audible, the family in this house stand by the cellar door ready to dive down below, in case the thing heads for this locality. A beastly business, terrifying for everyone.

Slept up in bedroom, but spent a few uneasy hours listening for the ominous roar, and then waiting the crash as the engine cuts out…

See Trevor Greenwood: D-Day to Victory: The Diaries of a British Tank Commander

Sgt Sewell of 1st Rifle Brigade, 7th Armoured Division, adjusts the camouflage on a 6-pdr anti-tank gun, Nieuwstadt, 25 December 1944.
Sgt Sewell of 1st Rifle Brigade, 7th Armoured Division, adjusts the camouflage on a 6-pdr anti-tank gun, Nieuwstadt, 25 December 1944.

While 9 RTR was in reserve 3rd Royal Tank Regiment were fully engaged:

…the Black Bull tankies now had two medium gunner regiments on call and on Christmas Day went on the offensive. The Germans were running short of petrol and the objectives were the recapture of Sorrines, Foy-Notre-Dame and Boisselles. Sorrines was easy but the bag in Boisselles was substantial.

Then a squadron of US Lightning fighter-bombers ground strafed 3 RTR and again an hour later. Foy-Notre-Dame was ablaze and together with the US 2nd Armoured Recce Squadron, an allied combined operation, many Germans, vehicles and halftracks were captured.

In all the three villages at the ‘end of play’, an immediate search was made for wines and spirits. The Chateau cellar at Boisselle was productive and at 0130 the Americans were terrific, they produced wine, K rations and stories equally quickly.

An American Captain carried round gin, brandy and rum. It had been one of the most exciting Christmas Days of one’s life. The next two days saw devastating attacks by RAF Typhoons as the German Panzers withdrew, leaving scores of petrol-less tanks and AFVs behind them.

This account appears in Patrick Delaforce (Ed): Marching to the Sound of Gunfire: North-West Europe 1944 – 1945

Rifleman Corker of 1st Rifle Brigade enjoys Christmas lunch in his foxhole on the front line, Nieuwstadt, 25 December 1944.
Rifleman Corker of 1st Rifle Brigade enjoys Christmas lunch in his foxhole on the front line, Nieuwstadt, 25 December 1944.

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

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.