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Published: June 12th 2016
Almost all generalizations are inaccurate to a greater or lesser degree, but I have always thought of the Normandy invasion in terms of large aggregates of men engaged in fights to take it to the enemy in weather that was tolerable. I have always thought of the Battle of the Bulge as smaller units, unorganized groups of men, and brave individuals performing heroically from defensive positions against a charging, well-armed enemy in weather that was beyond awful. Today's journey was our first day in the landscape of the Bulge. But it started at the sites of lesser well known but devastating battles at Aachen and the Hürtgen Forest.
The connected battles to take Aachen and the Hürtgen Forest constitute the longest battle ever fought by the US Army, lasting from September 19, 1944 to February 10, 1945. They were undertaken mostly to try to take the dams on the Ruhr River so that the Germans would not be able to release the water from the dams and flood the downstream area, thus making further Allied advances difficult or impossible, at least temporarily. There was also a desire to capture the first German city, and Aachen also had symbolic importance as
the original seat of the Holy Roman Empire. However, the terrain was completely unforgiving, the Germans were well dug in (including the Siegfried Line installations), and the Germans were will to fight very hard to protect the first city that might fall to the Allies and to protect the staging area for the forces that would strike back with the Bulge offensive which the Germans called Wacht am Rhein (Watch on the Rhine). The result was a bloodbath, with the Americans losing 33,000 men and the Germans 28,000 (total casualties, not deaths). If you read oral histories, the descriptions sound as horrific as those of the equally pointless battle at Peleliu in the Palau Islands. We started the day in the Hürtgen Forest where we were able to lo0cate a site where an American tank was hit and set on fire. The heat melted the track into the ground, where it remains today. We followed that up by locating some of the remaining dragon's teeth from the German defensive Siegfried Line. We then visited Lanzerath Ridge. Disappointingly, it is so overgrown now that it is difficult to recognize anything. At Lanzerath Ridge, Lt. Lyle Bouck led a 17 man Intelligence
and Reconnaissance platoon that was left behind as a delaying force, basically to be sacrificed. These men were selected as excellent marksmen and for being in excellent physical condition, but were not combat trained and had been ordered to avoid contact with the enemy as a result. As the other local troops pulled out, the platoon occupied a fairly defensible dugout and commandeered some extra weapons. They then proceeded to hold up the entire 1st Panzer Division (over 10,000 men) for about 20 hours. Although only one man was killed, most were wounded, and exhausted and out of ammunition they were finally captured a few hours before midnight. When the clock struck midnight, Lt. Bouck turned 21 years old.
The Battle of the Bulge (as it became known in the Allied countries) was conceived Hitler as a grand stroke in which large, heavily armed and armored forces would break out through thinly held Allied lines in the Losheim Gap and rapidly thrust to the Meuse River, force a crossing, and push on to take Antwerp. He hoped to shut off the supply lines, divide the American and British forces, and force them to sue for peace because of inability
to get along well enough any more to successfully prosecute the war. The fact that he was able to attack with no real warning on the Allied side represented a massive failure of Allied intelligence. There were reasons for that that are too complicated for this blog, but the greatest reason was simply a refusal on the part of the Allies to believe that Hitler would attack in the dead of winter in an area with poor roads and inhospitable terrain. When told of intelligence suggesting mobilizing of forces behind the Losheim Gap and possibly an impending attack, Ike's Chief of Staff Gen. Bedell Smith said "No damn fool would do it". But on the morning of December 16, 1944 the Germans bounced the beams of large spotlights against the low-hanging clouds to provide some light, and pushed off with what would eventually be a force of 450,000 men. The Allies countered with an eventual 610,000 men. The Americans (British involvement was minimal because of Geography and Montgomery) lost about 89,000, with 19,000 dead. The Germans lost between 65,000 and 125,000 men, and huge amounts of equipment. The Luftwaffe was broken, all reserves were gone, and Hitler achieved his goal
of shortening the war, but not in the manner he envisioned. The adversaries had returned to their original positions by early February 1945, and the war in Europe ended four months later. One good thing did come out of all this: the Americans became so critically short of men that Eisenhower integrated the Army for the first time. The battle in the north depended on controlling the heights of the Elsenborn Ridge. Relatively quickly, forces coming up from reserve and forces falling back from indefensible more forward positions stopped the Germans from grabbing this territory, and from then on the northern shoulder was controlled by massive and accurate artillery from this heights, using the Army's new proximity fuses and time-on-target barrages. In the south, the Germans had some success between Bastogne and Luxembourg, and enveloped Bastogne. But Bastogne controlled the necessary larger roads and failure to take Bastogne results in units having to take alternative lesser routes, resulting in fatal delay and increased fuel usage. In the middle, the American held bravely in front of St. Vith, but were eventually forced to fall back to a defensive line behind St. Vith, and in this area the Germans made their deepest
penetration of the American lines. Our visit today included the are around Bastogne. We first visited the Bastogne War Museum, which is the war and the battle around Bastogne from the Belgian perspective. I wish we had had more time there because it was certainly an different perspective that we found very interesting. But we had to move on. We next visited the area around Foy where the Easy Company of Band of Brothers had set up defensive positions. With the help of a fortuitously found guide, we were able to locate their foxholes and an impromptu memorial in the woods among their foxholes and trenches.
We finished the day with a visit to the very interesting 101st Airborne Museum and then to Champs and Chateau de Rolley, where extremely fierce fighting took place on Christmas Day, constituting the closest the Germans came to getting into Bastogne. Two days later, Patton broke through and broke the envelopment. He said he relieved the 101st Airborne, but they were quite clear that they did not need relief and were doing just fine. It is easy to forget that paratroopers are almost always fighting surrounded.
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