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.

Japanese Army advances in China

Japanese infantrycross river in China
Soldiers of Imperial Japanese Army 6th Infantry Regiment crossing the Bái hé River during the Battle of Zaoyang-Yichang. The regiment, as the main force of the IJA 3rd Division, was approaching Yíchāng from the north: 8 May 1940

While Europe was preoccupied watching anxiously to see what Hitler’s next move was, the Japanese continued their aggression in China. The war had started in July 1937 and the relative weakness of the Chinese forces had led them to adopt a long term strategy where they traded ‘space for time’. The Chinese National Revolutionary Army allowed the Japanese to advance to locations where their lines of communication where extended and they could be ambushed and encircled. Frustrated by these tactics the Japanese ‘Three Alls’ policy – ‘Kill All, Loot All, Burn All’ led to some appalling atrocities against the civilian Chinese population during this period.

British troops face Germans at Lillehammer

German troops in a fierce struggle against Norwegian troops in a village, 40 km west of Lillehammer.
The original caption: German troops in a fierce struggle against Norwegian troops in a village, 40 km west of Lillehammer.

2nd Lt. J.P.Guy of 1/5 Leicestershire Regt. had landed at Andalsnes on the 18th April. He was part of a British force intended to move north to relieve Trondheim in conjunction with the [permalink id=5043 text=’Anglo-French force moving south from Namsos’]. They too faced difficulties through a lack of transport, anti-aircraft guns and artillery. Instead of moving on Trondheim they were forced to go to the assistance of the Norwegians at Lillehammer.

Sunday. 21st April. 1940. Battle at Lillehamar.

At 9.0 am. Sunday morning a Norwegian Staff Officer told us to get ready as we were going down to the line. We dressed quickly snatched some biscuits, and at about 11 o’clock onto trucks taking us South. Continue reading “British troops face Germans at Lillehammer”

German troops consolidate in Norway

German troops in snow during invasion of Norway
German 'shock troops' in a village near Trondheim, Norway

The Germans moved swiftly to consolidate their hold over Norway. They were much better equipped than their Norwegian opponents. The bulk of the Norwegian army was comprised of reservists with limited training. Norway had not fought a war for 125 years and most its weapons were obsolete. Crucially it had no anti-tank guns and few anti-aircraft guns. Even though the ranks of the Norwegian Army were quickly swelled by thousands of reservists rallying to the cause, many of whom were expert riflemen, they had lacked the firepower to confront the Germans. The Norwegians were forced to adopt a holding strategy while waiting for support from Britain and France.

British troops in France demonstrate their preparedness

Machine gunners of the Cheshire Regiment pose for the camera, April 1940

There was little activity on the Western Front for propaganda purposes, so most images from the ‘phoney war’ period are blatant publicity shots. The Newsreel from the time now seems desperately optimistic, given subsequent event. The following very brief episode was released on the 1st April, which may not have been entirely coincidental: Continue reading “British troops in France demonstrate their preparedness”

The BEF in France: Life on the Western Front

An earlier photograph: Lord Gort, Commander of the BEF in France, General Brooke, Commander of II Corps and Hore Belisha, Secretary of State for War until January 1940

In March 1940 Alan Brooke was General commanding II Corps in the British Expeditionary Force in France. He kept one of the best diaries of the war, here he describes life close to the front line:

26 March
Left Metz at 8.45 and met Anderson at 9.30 am. Spent half an hour with him discussing the doings of the 11th Inf Bde during the last few days, and in obtaining from him details of the patrol encounter in which Hudson of the Lancs Fusiliers killed 5 Germans and captured one. It was a fine show as Hudson had only 5 men with him and there were 10 Germans in all, four of which escaped. I then went up to examine the front posts and the work that has been done on them lately. From a good point of observation we examined the village of Leuvage and Anderson explained to me his plans for an encirclement of the village by all his battalion battle patrols with the object of capturing Germans. It is to take place on Wednesday night. I had an interview with Hudson, a very nice boy who has spent most of his life shooting and poaching! He gave me a full and interesting account of his adventures. Continue reading “The BEF in France: Life on the Western Front”

British infantry positions on the Western Front

German Troops on the West Wall, dated 2nd March 1940

Further extracts from the diary of Captain Twomey from 58 Medium Regiment, Royal Artillery, on attachment to the French Artillery for a week, in which he describes British Infantry trenches, following an earlier German attack:

The posts are one and all sited very poorly. I don’t think a single one can see another to give it support. All we saw are in the forward edge of the wood sited to fire directly to their front – they can’t see to the flanks to fire because of the trees – and they can see no further to their front than their barbed wire entanglements because of the convex slope of the ground. Continue reading “British infantry positions on the Western Front”

No fraternisation on the Western Front

British Expeditionary Force troops on the Western Front

The Naval, Military and Air Situation up to 12 noon on 28 December 1939, as reported to the War Cabinet:

Naval situation

General review.

Throughout the week under review the Northern Patrol has been maintained by a strong force of cruisers and armed merchant cruisers. A force of heavy ships has been operating to cover the patrol, the convoys to and from Bergen and their homeward bound convoy from Narvik. These convoys arrived without incident.

2. Strong submarine patrols have also been maintained in the approaches to the Skagerrak and Heligoland Bight, but there has been kept comparatively little enemy activity either of surface ships, U-boats or aircraft, due possibly to the bright moonlight and foggy weather in home waters.

3. No merchant ships, Allied or neutral, have been attacked by U-boat, and losses due to mines are small.

4. The second Canadian troop convoys sailed from Halifax on 23 December with a powerful escort of British and French warships, and the military convoy which left India on 10 December, with four animal transport companies, has arrived at Marseille.

Foreign Waters.

13. Following the destruction of the Admiral Graf Spee off Montevideo on 17 December, the forces which had been hurrying towards the Plate and from northward carried out a sweep to locate the German tanker Altmark (20,000 tons), from which the Admiral Graf Spee had fuelled on 7th December. The Altmark is believed to have on board about 300 prisoners, the remainder of the crews of the merchant vessels sunk by the Admiral Graf Spee. This sweep has now been completed without success. The French have disposed a number of submarines and armed merchant cruisers to intercept the Altmark should she work towards the north Atlantic. The area to be covered is a very large one.

Military Situation

British Expeditionary Force

29. Headquarters and ancillary units of the fifth division had now arrived in France, thus completing that formation.

Reports from the British sector of the Saar front state that there has been no activity apart from patrolling.

Western front

30. No major operations have taken place. On the Rhine-Moselle found several minor German attacks were launched on French positions and successfully repulsed.

On the Rhine front a tentative attempts by the garrison of a German casemate to fraternise with French troops was interrupted by French machine gun fire.

Air Situation

Royal Air Force Operations.

Bomber command

Operations against German Naval forces

35. During the week under review a number of reconnaissances have taken place with a view to locating and attacking enemy naval forces.

On the 24th December seventeen Wellingtons made a reconnaissance of an area off the west coast of Denmark and sighted several patrol ships in a position 40 miles north west of Horn Reefs. The ships were steaming in pairs and, after challenge and counter challenge, they opened fire on the aircraft with pom-poms. Three Wellington was attacked, dropping eight 500 lb. bombs from a height of 4000 feet. Observations were rendered difficult by clouds and it is not known if any hits were made.

Russo- Finnish Operations

Situation on land.

50. Information received during the period under review shows that the situation of the Finnish armies has improved considerably in all sectors.

51. On the Karelian Isthmus a major Soviet offensive which took place between the 19th and 21st of December failed to make any impression on the Finnish defences, though it was accompanied by very heavy bombardment by artillery and aircraft. Lack of success appears to have reacted unfavourably on the morale of the Red Army; and, though the offensive has been continued, it has achieved nothing.

52. On the eastern frontier Finnish troops have scored a number of successes, helped by severe weather and by increasing Soviet maintenance difficulties.

53. These successes have greatly improved Finish morale and the High Command are now very confident. They find the enemy’s leadership feeble, his tactics poor and wasteful, his troops inferior. They express themselves as able to hold the Karelian Isthmus against any attack the Soviet can make and consider that maintenance difficulties will prevent attacks in other sectors developing on a dangerous scale. In spite of Finnish confidence it is doubtful whether it would be physically possible to hold any position against the weight of artillery which the Soviet could deploy against the Karelian Isthmus position, unless the defenders possess large quantities of artillery and aircraft to carry out counter battery bombardments on a large scale. It is, therefore to be hoped that Finnish optimism will not lead them to undertake any dangerous counter offensive, which might well result in losses of men and material the country could ill afford. It should be remembered that the Russian soldier always gives a much better account of himself in defence than in attack.

On the Soviet side it appears that the High Command have been attempting to reverse the course of events by bringing out further reinforcements, a doubtful remedy in a war where the lack of communications and limited frontages are the decisive factors. There is, however, some chance that Russian numbers may tell in the south, once the ice on Lake Ladoga and the Gulf of Finland become thick enough for Soviet troops to operate across them.

The latest reports suggest that there are 11 Soviet infantry divisions in the Karelian Isthmus and 16 divisions between Lake Ladoga and the Arctic Ocean. A partial evacuation of Leningrad is reported to have taken place so as to facilitate the working of the principal base of these large forces.

See TNA CAB 66/4/28