Military history

Chapter Nine

Winter War: January 1945

ON NEW YEAR'S Eve, 1944, Lieutenant John Cobb (USMA, 1943) was in a convoy crossing the English Channel. A replacement officer for the 82nd Airborne, he was on his way to Elsenborn Ridge.

"Notwithstanding blackout and security conditions," he wrote later, "every ship in the Channel sounded whistles or sirens or shot off flares at midnight on New

Year's Eve."

That same night Corporal Paul-Arthur Zeihe of the llth Panzer Division was on the front line near Trier. "Just before midnight the shooting stopped almost entirely," he remembered. "As the clock struck twelve, the Americans began with their fireworks, sending illuminated rockets into the air. Suddenly, by the light of their rockets, we saw the Americans getting out of their holes, clutching their rifles and pistols, jumping, skipping around, shooting their weapons and lighting up the whole valley. I can still see them before me today, caught against the light of their rockets, prancing around on a background of fresh snow. It did not take long before we were doing the same thing, firing off illuminated rockets, shooting our weapons. It lasted about five, maybe six minutes. It slowed, then stopped. We disappeared back into our holes, and so did they. It was one of the most beautiful experiences I had during my service. We had allowed our humanity to rise that once."

The feeling was universal. The new year had begun. Surely this had to be the last year of the war. The Allies had driven the Germans back. The troops had liberated France and Belgium. Supply lines from the United States and Great Britain were secure and stuffed with men and materiel being sent to the front.

A panoramic snapshot of ETO taken on January 1, 1945, would have shown tankers and freighters and transports unloading at Le Havre, Antwerp, Cherbourg; long lines of trucks carrying men and supplies forward; tent-city hospitals and army headquarters; supply dumps that held many square miles of food, ammunition, clothing, fuel, vehicles; some villages and cities destroyed, some intact; airfields scattered across France and Belgium, swarming with activity; a constant movement of tanks, cannon, jeeps, trucks; close to the German border the big cannon lined up; and at the front itself American troops dug in-cold, hungry, exhausted but victorious.

A panoramic snapshot of Germany would have shown city after city in ruin, on fire; in rural areas little evidence of war; abandoned vehicles, some disabled by Jabos, some by mechanical problems; no artillery in sight because of camouflage; and at the front itself German troops dug in-cold, hungry, exhausted and just defeated in their great offensive gamble.

As to the cold, all suffered equally. How cold was it? So cold that if a man didn't do his business in a hurry, he risked a frostbitten penis. Private Don Schoo, an AA (antiaircraft) gunner attached to the 4th Armoured Division, recalled, "I went out to my half-track to relieve the man on guard. He couldn't get out of the gun turret. His overcoat was wet when he got in and it froze so he couldn't get out." It was so cold the oil in the engines froze. Weapons froze.

Nights ranged from zero Fahrenheit to minus ten and lower. Men without shelter other than a foxhole-or heat stayed awake, stomping their feet through the fourteen-hour night. Major Harrison had as one of his most vivid memories the sight of GIs pressed against the hot stones of the walls of burning houses, as flames came out of the roof and windows. They were not hiding from Germans: they were trying to get warm for a minute or two.

The conditions in Northwest Europe in January 1945 were as brutal as any in history, including Napoleon's and the German retreats from Moscow in midwinter 1812 and 1941. But in this battle the Germans were not retreating. They fought back against the American advance, which could barely move forward anyway in the ice and snow, forcing the Americans to pay the highest price for taking back the territory lost in the Bulge. Eisenhower had under his command seventy-three divisions. Of the total, forty-nine were American, twelve British, three Canadian, one Polish and eight French. He had forty-nine infantry, twenty armoured and four airborne divisions. As against this, the Germans had seventy six divisions.

Given the near equality in firepower and the brutality of conditions, a winter offensive had little appeal. Nevertheless, Eisenhower decided to launch attacks north and south of the Bulge to trap the Germans at its western tip and regain the lost ground. He felt he had no option. The Allies could not shut down offensive operations while V-ls and V-2s continued to bombard Antwerp, London, and other cities.

The initial January offensive by the Allies was directed against the German salient. It was agreed that First and Third armies would meet at Houffalize, a village five miles north of Bastogne. When the linkup took place, the Bulge would be cut in half. Eisenhower insisted that there would be a broad-front advance into Germany once the Bulge was eliminated. He emphasized, "We must regain the initiative, and speed and energy are essential."

For the frontline infantry, armour, and artillery of First and Third armies, the battle that raged through January was among the worst of the war-if possible, even more miserable than Hiirtgen. It was fought in conditions so terrible that they can only be marvelled at, not really imagined. Only those who were there can know.

The combat soldiers of ETO at this time numbered about 300,000. In the junior officer ranks the turnover had been almost three quarters. Still there was a core of veterans in most divisions, including junior officers who had won battlefield promotions-the highest honour a soldier can receive-and sergeants, most of whom had been the privates of Normandy, St. Lo, Falaise, Holland, and the Bulge; survivors who had moved up when NCOs were killed or wounded. These newly made lieutenants and sergeants, some of them teenage boys, provided the leadership that got the US Army through that terrible January.

There were some unusual junior officers on the front. One was Lieutenant Ed Gesner of the 4th Infantry Division. He was a 40year-old who had been transferred out of OSS (Office of Strategic Services) because he was too old to jump behind enemy lines. He knew survival tricks that he taught his platoon, such as how to create a foxhole in a hurry in frozen ground: he shot eight rounds into the same spot, quickly dug out the loose dirt with his trench knife, placed a half stick of TNT in the hole, lit the fuse, ran back 30 metres, hit the dirt, got up and ran back before the dust settled, and dug with his trench shovel. Within minutes a habitable foxhole.

The junior officers coming over from the States were another matter. Pink cheeked youth, they were bewildered by everything around them. Major Winters, himself a private back in 1942, commented that during the Bulge, "I looked at the junior officers and my company commanders and I ground my teeth. Basically we had weak lieutenants. I didn't have faith in them." Winters did what he could to get his most experienced NCOs with the weakest officers and scattered the veterans among the new lieutenants.

In the hundreds of companies stretched along the front, when the order to attack got down to the line, the men were outraged. Major Winters said,

"It pissed me off. I could not believe that after what we had gone through and done, after all the casualties we had suffered, they were putting us into an attack."

It wasn't just that they figured it was some other guy's turn; it was that they were exhausted, completely drained, men. Practically every one had a bad cold to add to the misery (pneumonia sent many back to hospitals), and they were jumping off into conditions that would have taxed them at their peak physical condition.

In the woods in the Ardennes the snow was a foot and more deep, frozen on top, slippery, noisy. To advance, a man had to flounder through the snow, bending and squirming to avoid knocking the snow off the branches and revealing his position. Visibility was limited to a few metres. An attacker could not see a machine-gun position or a foxhole until he was almost on top of it. There were no landmarks. Squads had to move on compass bearings until they bumped into somebody-friend or enemy. But attacking through the cleared grazing fields was equally daunting. There was no concealment, and many GIs had no camouflage.

On January 9 an officer from the Criminal Investigation Corps asked Colonel Ken Reimers of the 90th Division if he had a Lieutenant Barry in his outfit. Reimers did. The CIC officer wanted to arrest Barry; it seemed he had stolen some sheets from a civilian house in the 90th's area. The CIC claimed a lot of looting had been going on, and he was going to put a stop to it. But Reimers discovered that Barry had hit on the idea of sheets for camouflage in the snow, and had cut holes in the centre of them and distributed one to every man in his platoon. When Reimers explained this to the division commander. General Earnest Bixby, Bixby said, "Promote him." Reimers explained that Barry was already a first lieutenant. "Well, give him a Bronze Star then, for his initiative."

Under the sheet, if he was lucky enough to have one, the average infantryman had the pockets of his combat jacket crammed with rations, shaving articles, pictures, cigarettes, candy, dry socks, writing paper and pens, and mess kit. He had his raincoat folded over the back of his belt or wore it to help keep warm. He carried two to four army-issue thin wool blankets. Whenever the GIs had to make a forced march of more than a few miles, the roadside would be strewn with blankets, overcoats, overshoes, and gas masks. A truck would follow along behind, collect the equipment, bring it forward, and reissue ithopefully, before dark.

PRIVATE KURT Gabel of the 17th Airborne Division was in the attack on January 3 near Mande St.-Etienne, some ten kilometres north of Bastogne. His platoon moved through a wood, then spread out to cross an open snow-covered field. "Suddenly the air directly above us was alive with sounds I had not heard before," Gabel wrote. It was the screeching sound of the "screaming meemies," the German nebelwerfer, or multiple rocket. "The first salvo crashed into our formation as the next rounds already howled above us. The platoon leader yelled, 'Hit it!' I hit the snow, face first, and felt multiple concussions as the rockets pounded down. They howled and burst, and I clawed the ground and whimpered."

Between explosions Gabel heard a yell, "Move!" It struck him as incongruous. He turned his head as best he could while pressing his body into the ground and saw "a captain running towards the rifle squad.

'Get up!' he yelled, his face contorted with rage. 'Get up, you stupid bastards. You'll die here. There's no cover. Move! Move!' He grabbed one soldier by the shoulder and kicked another. I had never seen that kind of rage. 'Get 'em up, goddamn it!'"

Gabel was more than impressed: "The rockets seemed to lose their terror next to that captain. I did not know who he was and did not care. I jumped up and stumbled forward." Others did the same. The platoon got to the far side of the open field. The men threw themselves down in a drainage ditch, exhausted.

"Fix bayonets!" Gabel felt the shock of the order jerk his body. "Fix bayonets? That is World War I stuff. Bayonets were for opening Cration cans." Not this day. All around Gabel, "there was the bloodfreezing sound of fourteen bayonets drawn from scabbards and clicking home on their studs under the rifle barrels."

"Let's go," the platoon leader called out. All fourteen men jumped out of the ditch, formed into a line of skirmishers, and moved towards the German position. They began shouting, "Geronimo!" Gabel screamed with the others. They got into the German lines. Enemy soldiers tried to lift their hands. Still yelling, the troopers thrust their bayonets into the Germans. They took the village. Their reward was that they got to spend the night in town,

One thing that kept many of those thrown into these early January attacks going was the thought of where they would spend the night, usually the next small village to the east. "It was something to live for," Private Jack Ammons of the 90th Division remembered. If the GIs could drive the Germans from the houses before dark, it would be the GIs occupying the cellars, out of the wind. If Germans held the town, the GIs would spend the first hours of darkness digging foxholes in the wood nearest the village and the remainder of the night stomping in the foxhole to keep from freezing-and then move out on another attack in the morning.

It sometimes happened that the Germans occupied one set of cellars, the GIs the other. Occasionally they shared the same cellar. Private Schoo found three German soldiers sleeping on a cellar floor. Schoo got a couple of buddies, and they woke the Germans up. One could speak English. "We had them get wood for a fire, we heated food and coffee-we sat up all night talking, in the morning we took them back to HQ (they were nice guys)."

Another characteristic of the January fighting was the horror created by a high incidence of bodies crushed by tanks. Men slipped, tanks skidded. Wounded couldn't get out of the way. Twenty-year-old Sergeant Dwayne Burns of the 82nd Airborne saw a fellow paratrooper who had been run over by a tank. "If it hadn't been for the pair of legs and boots sticking out of all the gore, it would have been hard to tell what it was. I looked away and thought for sure that I was going to vomit. I just wanted to throw my weapon away and tell them I quit. No more, I just can't take no more."

But he had to, because the pressure from above was irresistible. The generals wanted results, so the colonels wanted results, so the men kept moving, no matter what.

Not all company commanders were willing to follow orders unquestioningly. On one occasion two simply refused to carry out a direct order to attack. They were Captain Jay Prophet and Captain Harold Lein-baugh, commanding companies A and K of the 333rd Infantry Regiment, 84th Division. The morning after a night spent in a wood, under regular shelling, the battalion commander, a colonel, came to the front and ordered A and K companies to advance another half mile. Prophet refused. So did Leinbaugh. Prophet protested that all the weapons were frozen; the companies were at half strength; the men exhausted. The colonel threatened a court-martial. "Colonel," Prophet replied, "there's nothing I'd like more right now than a nice warm court-martial."

The colonel refused to believe the weapons were frozen. Prophet ordered a test. None of the weapons could be fired. The colonel began to chew out the captains for their own and their men's appearance. He said it looked like no one had shaved for a week. Leinbaugh said there was no hot water. The colonel, who prided himself on being a product of the old National Guard, gave a tip: "Now if you men would save some of your morning coffee it could be used for shaving." Leinbaugh stepped over to a snowbank, picked up the five-gallon GI coffee can brought up that morning, and shook it in the colonel's face. The frozen coffee produced a thunk. Leinbaugh shook it again.

"That's enough," said the colonel. "Goddammit, I can hear."

WHEN THE offensive began on January 3, First Army and Third Army were separated by 25 miles of rugged hills and gorges, frozen rivers, icy roads, snow-laden forests, and tens of thousands of battle-hardened German troops. From the south the lead units of Third Army-the 26th and 90th divisions-moved out towards Houffalize. To the north First Army lurched forward.

The 82nd Airborne was one of First Army's divisions, attacking southward from Trois-Ponts. Colonel Vandervoort's battalion of the 505th PIR was in the van. H hour was 0830, and initially all went well. Then an open field stretched between them and the village of Fosse, the first objective. Small-arms fire came on in such volume that it was impossible to advance. Nevertheless, company and platoon commanders tried to get the men to follow-only to be shot down themselves before taking a halfdozen floundering steps in the two-foot-deep snow. Colonel Vandervoort got artillery on the German position, and the barrage forced the Germans to pull out. The paratroopers moved into Fosse, then out to a wood, where they dug in for the night.

As the temperature dropped and the snow continued to fall, the 505th learned that trucks couldn't get through to bring on their gear, so there would be no overcoats, packs, or sleeping bags. Canteens froze solid. The cold and exposure caused old wounds to flare up and, remarkably, triggered many relapses of malaria that had been contracted in the Mediterranean. The regimental history comments, "Despite the heroic efforts of the Medics (many of whom became casualties themselves) who laboured unceasingly all night long, some of the more seriously wounded died."

In the morning, January 4, the sleepless men resumed their attack-really, slogging through the snow, one man breaking trail for two followers, with two tanks in support. They came to a strongly defended hill. The tanks rolled forward and began raking the hillside with bullets and shells. "Everyone opened fire, shooting as fast as they could pull triggers and load clips. In a very short time (probably less than a minute), German soldiers started popping out of holes with their hands in the air," the regimental history notes. "Then an incredible spectacle occurred. From every position on that hill, Germans began climbing out of holes while troopers stood there with their mouths wide open at the sight of approximately 200 Germans milling around." In this encounter the 505th, which had suffered grievously the previous day, had nary a scratch.

January 5 and 6 were more of the same-a kilometre or so advance each day. The good news on January 6 was that the engineers had bulldozed a road through to the front, so trucks could bring the GIs their gear.

On January 7, at 0800 hours, Colonel Vandervoort was hit by mortar fire. "This stunned the battalion," the regimental history continues, "which had come to believe that its long-time commander was invincible." The wounds eventually ended his army career prematurely. As army historian S.L.A. Marshall put it, "The US Army lost a file that was destined for higher command."

THE GERMAN retreat out of the Bulge was slow, stubborn, and costly to the Americans-but to the Germans also. Hitler, always insistent on holding captured ground, refused to consider pulling out and returning to the Siegfried Line. To hold in the Bulge and retain the threat of an offensive thrust westward, Hitler attacked in Alsace with the idea of preventing further American reinforcements moving north to the Ardennes.

Hitler's Operation Northwind, the attack in Alsace starting January 1, hit Lieutenant General Alexander Patch's US Seventh Army. Eventually fifteen US divisions with 250,000 men were involved in the fighting, along a front that ran from Saarbriicken in the north to the west bank of the Rhine, south of Strasbourg. This was a natural salient along the bend of the Rhine.

Behind the salient, the Alsatian plain stretched westward to the foothills of the Vosges Mountains. The textbook response to Northwind would have been to fall back on the rough country and leave the plain to the Germans. That was what Eisenhower wanted to do, but politics intervened. De Gaulle told the Supreme Commander that as the French leader he absolutely could not accept abandoning Strasbourg, not only for reasons of national pride but because of the fearful reprisals the Gestapo was sure to take on its citizens. Eisenhower reluctantly agreed, and the order went out to Seventh Army: hold your ground.

Colonel Hans von Luck's 125th Regiment, 21st Panzer Division, had the mission of breaking through the American lines on the northwestern base of the salient, cutting across the eastern foothills of the Vosges, and thus severing the American supply line to Strasbourg. That required breaking through the Maginot Line. It ran east-west in this area, following the Rhine River bend. The Line had seen no fighting to speak of in 1940-the Germans went around it-but in January 1945 it showed what a superb fortification it was.

On January 7 von Luck approached the Line south of Wissembourg, at Rittershoffen. "Suddenly we could make out the first bunker, which received us with heavy fire," he said. The Americans utilized the firing points, trenches, retractable cannon, and other features of the Line to stop the Germans cold.

Over the next two days the Germans reinforced the attack with the 25th Panzer Division. At one point they managed to get close enough to throw grenades into the embrasures, but they were immediately driven back by heavy artillery fire.

Still the Germans came on. At times the battle raged inside the bunkers, a nerve-shattering experience made worse by the earshattering noise of explosives. Eventually von Luck got through. On January 10 he moved his regiment forward for an attack on Rittershoffen, preparatory to assaulting another part of the Maginot Line from the rear, to widen the breach. That night he got into the village but was not able to drive the Americans out. They held one end: von Luck's men held the other. There then developed a two-week-long battle that von Luck, a veteran of Poland, France, Russia, North Africa, and Normandy, characterized as "one of the hardest and most costly battles that ever raged."

Both sides used their artillery nonstop, firing 10,000 rounds per day. The lines were never more than one street apart, and sometimes on the same side of the street, occasionally in the same house. Private Pat Reilly of the 79th recalled, "It was a weird battle. One time you were surrounded, the next you weren't. Often we took refuge in houses where the Germans were upstairs. We heard them and could see them and vice versa. If they didn't make a move we left and if we didn't make a move they left." Flamethrowers were used to set houses afire. Adding to the horror, the population of women, children, and old folks huddled in the cellars. The soldiers on both sides did what they could to feed and care for the civilians.

Individual movement by day was dangerous. At night trucks rolled up, bringing ammunition and food, carrying out wounded. The dead, including some 100 civilians, lay in the streets. There was hand-tohand fighting with knives, room-to-room fighting with pistols, rifles, and bazookas. Attacks and counterattacks.

On January 21 the much depleted 79th and 14th Armoured divisions abandoned the Maginot Line and fell back along the Moder River. Von Luck only realized they had gone in the morning. He walked around the village, unbelieving. At the church he crawled through the wreckage to the altar, which lay in ruins. But behind the altar the organ was undamaged. Von Luck directed one of his men to tread the bellows, then sat down at the keyboard and played Bach's chorale Danket Alle Gott. The sound resounded through the village. Soldiers and civilians gathered, knelt, prayed, sang.

Overall, the Northwind offensive was a failure. The Germans never got near Strasbourg, nor could they cut US supply lines. Seventh Army's losses in January were 11,609 battle casualties plus 2,836 cases of trench foot. German losses were around 23,000 killed, wounded, or missing.

IN THE Ardennes, K Company, 333rd Regiment, 84th Division, was the spearhead for First Army's drive on Houffalize. One member of the company. Private Fred "Junior" Olson, had come in as a replacement on, New Year's Eve. He remembered that no one gave him any advice or information: "It was as if there was no way to explain it, that I would find out for myself in due time."

Over the next week Olson had enough experience to make him a hardened veteran. In his first firefight, on January 7, a German got behind his foxhole. Olson was eating "one of those damn chocolate bars out of the K ration" and never noticed. His buddy. Sergeant Paul Zerbel, saw the German when he was ten feet away. Zerbel beat the German to the draw. After killing the German, Zerbel said it was time to haul ass. "We were going single-file down through the trees," Olson recalled, "and I tripped." As he did, a machine-gun burst cut the branches off right above his head. His life flashed past him. "It didn't last long, just a matter of seconds. I still know in my own mind that if I hadn't tripped I'd have been killed."

When Zerbel and Olson reached the company lines, Olson was greatly relieved. "It was past midnight and January 7th had been my birthday. For some strange reason I had persuaded myself that if I could live through my nineteenth birthday, I could make it all the rest of the way; that somehow everything was going to be all right. Here it was, January 8th, and I'd made it."

The company continued to attack. On January 13 Lieutenant Franklin Brewer protested to the company commander, "There is not one man in the company fit to walk another mile, much less fight." But division headquarters said that as the company had just spent a day in a village, where it had "rested and reorganized," it was fit for duty. That meant the men had found the ruins of a house to break the wind, huddled down in frozen overcoats, and fallen into an exhausted sleep. At 0330 it was up for tepid coffee and Spam and cheese sandwiches, then a march towards Houffalize.

That morning the lead squad came under fire from log-covered emplacements. The GIs did what came naturally to them by this stage-they called in the artillery. Within minutes more than a hundred rounds of 105 shells exploded against the German position. "As the barrage lifted," the company history records, "we moved forward quickly and built up a firing line within forty yards of the Germans. The small-arms exchange lasted only a few minutes before a white rag on the end of a rifle was waved frantically from a hole. The Germans-eight or ten of them crawled out of their holes, stretching their arms as high as possible as they trudged apprehensively towards us through the snow."

Moving forward. Captain Leinbaugh came across a German major propped against a tree. His right leg had been cut off at midthigh. The German said to Leinbaugh, quietly and in good English, "Please shoot me." Leinbaugh kept on walking. Further on, one of the sergeants caught up to Leinbaugh and asked if he had seen the guy with his leg cut off.

"Yeah. He asked me to shoot him."

"Yeah. He asked me, too."

"Did you?" "Hell, you know I couldn't walk off and leave the poor son of a bitch to die like that."

That same day Major Roy Creek of the 507th PIR, one of the heroes of D-Day, met two men carrying a severely wounded paratrooper back to the aid station. Creek took his hand to give him encouragement. The trooper asked, "Major, did I do OK?"

"You did fine, son." But as they carried him away, Creek noticed that one of his legs was missing. "I dropped the first tear for him as they disappeared in the trees. Through the fifty years since, I still continue to fight the tears when I've thought of him and so many others like him. Those are the true heroes of the war."

ON JANUARY 14, K Company advanced to within a half mile of First Army's final phase line at Houffalize. When the linkup took place the following day, the companies faced east and attacked again, this time to breach the Siegfried Line. January 15 is generally considered the last day of the Battle of the Bulge, but no one could have convinced the GIs of that. They still had a hard push ahead to get back to positions they had held one month earlier.

It was a disheartening experience to have to fight for ground once held. The 4th Infantry Division had been in continuous combat since D-Day, June 6. 1944. Lieutenant George Wilson joined the 4th just before the St. Lo breakthrough. Now, in January 1945, he found himself fighting for terrain that was becoming more and more familiar. "We were retracing the route we had taken when chasing the Germans over four months before. Our overall mission was to penetrate the Siegfried Line at the exact same spot." Wilson was struck by the thought that of the thirty-odd officers in his regiment in September, only three remained active. In addition, the regiment had lost many replacement officers. Wilson "could not help reflecting how many lives had been lost for what appeared to be no gain after almost five months of hell."

The total of American casualties in the Bulge was 80,987. More than half came in January. Thus January 1945 was the costliest month of the campaign in northwest Europe for the US Army. Total German casualties in the Bulge are estimated from 80.000 to 104,000. The battle had political consequences of the greatest magnitude. Hitler's decision to strip the Eastern Front to seek a decision in the West led to the crushing of the depleted German forces in the east, beginning January 12 with the Red Army offensive. The Red Army overran eastern Germany and Central Europe, which led to a half century of communist enslavement. The man responsible for this catastrophe was the world's leading anti-Communist, but he chose to sacrifice his nation and his people to the Communists instead of defending against them in the East.

At the end of January, American armies in northwest Europe were again at the German border. Surely, this time they would get across the Rhine.

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