WHEN THE Americans reached the German border, their best intelligence sources dried up. Inside Germany the Wehrmacht used secure telephone lines rather than radio, which rendered Ultra, the British deciphering device, deaf and blind. Weather kept reconnaissance aircraft on the ground. And in the Ardennes patrols were rare and seldom aggressive, as each side was willing to leave the other alone so long as things stayed quiet. There the line had been stagnant for two months.
In early December, Eisenhower reviewed the situation on the Western Front with Bradley. His overwhelming goal was to strengthen US First and Ninth armies to continue the winter offensive north of Aachen. Turning to the centre of his line, he and Bradley discussed the weakness in the Ardennes. Four divisions, two green, two so worn down by Hiirtgen fighting that they had been withdrawn and sent to this rest area to refit, spread over a 150-kilometre front, seemed to invite a counterattack.
Bradley said it would be unprofitable to the Germans to make such an attack. Of course the Germans had sliced right through the area in May 1940, but that was against almost no opposition, in good weather. The generals agreed that the newly formed Volkssturm divisions were hardly capable of offensive action through the Ardennes on winter roads. So they told each other that an Ardennes attack would be a strategic mistake for the enemy.
Eisenhower and Bradley's thinking was logical. Every senior general in the German army agreed with them. Nevertheless, they were dead wrong. Had they looked at the situation from Hitler's point of view, they would have come to a much different conclusion.
Hitler knew Germany would never win the war by defending the Siegfried Line and then the Rhine. His only chance was to win a lightning victory in the West. If surprise could be achieved, it might work. Nothing else would. As early as September 25 Hitler had told his generals he intended to launch a counteroffensive through the Ardennes to cross the Meuse and drive on to Antwerp.
His generals objected, making the same points Eisenhower and Bradley had made. Hitler brushed them aside. When asked about fuel, he said the tanks could drive forward on captured American gasoline. He promised new divisions with new equipment and the biggest gathering of the Luftwaffe in three years.
Hitler said the German onslaught would divide the British and American forces. When the Germans took Antwerp, the British would have to pull another Dunkirk. Then he could take divisions from the west to reinforce the Eastern Front. Seeing all this, Stalin would conclude a peace, based on a division of Eastern Europe. Nazi Germany would not win the war, but it would survive.
Here was the old Fiihrer, all full of himself, exploding with energy, barking out orders, back on the offensive. The remembrance of those glorious spring days in May 1940 almost overwhelmed him. It could be done again. It could! It was a matter of will.
To PROVIDE the will, Hitler counted on the children. The German soldiers of December 1944 were mostly born between 1925 and 1928. They had been raised by the Nazis for this moment, and they had that fanatical bravery their Fuhrer counted on.
They were well equipped. Hitler brought men, tanks, and planes from the Eastern Front and assigned the greater portion of new weapons to the Ardennes. The Luftwaffe managed to gather 1,500 planes (although it never got more than 800 in the air at one time, and usually less than 60 per day). German manpower climbed in the west from 416,000 on December 1 to 1,322,000 on December 15.
Impressive though the German buildup in the eastward extension of the Ardennes known as the Eifel was, it was not a force capable of reaching its objectives on its own resources. It would depend on surprise, the speed of the advance once through the American lines, a slow American response, captured American supplies, panic among retreating American troops, and bad weather to neutralize the Allied air forces. That was a long list.
Hitler had managed to achieve surprise. Using many of the same techniques the Allies had used to fool the Germans about the time and place of the cross Channel attack in June-the creation of fictitious units, false radio traffic, and playing on preconceptions that the German buildup was in support of a counterattack north of Aachen-Hitler gave the Americans a sense of security about the Ardennes. On the eve of the opening action in the greatest battle the US Army has ever fought, not a single soldier in that army had the slightest sense of what was about to happen.
ACROSS FROM the Eifel the American troops were a mixed lot. The 2nd Infantry Division, in nearly continuous battle since June 7, was moving through the 99th Division on its way to attack the Rur River dams from the south. The 2nd had been in Hiirtgen, so it had many more replacements than veterans, but it had a core of experienced company commanders and platoon leaders. The 99th and another newly arrived division, the 106th, placed to its right, had few experienced personnel. There was little or no unit cohesion, and most of the riflemen were only partially trained. But the 99th had spent sufficient time at the front to have toughened up. It ran patrols, made mistakes, learned from them. The general attitude, as expressed by one soldier, was, "The German troops facing us were of low quality and appeared to be of the opinion that if we didn't bother them, they would leave us alone."
The weather was cold, the days dreary and snowy. The men in the foxholes were eating snow because their canteens were empty and they could not build fires to boil water. Rations were cold. Clothes were World War I issue and entirely inadequate.
Always hungry, the men of Charlie Company, 395th Regiment, tried to supplement their diet with venison. Private Vernon Swanson went after the locally abundant deer with his BAR (Browning automatic rifle), a common practice for GIs in Belgium that winter. He dropped one, but the deer was only wounded. "We followed the blood trail for quite a distance into German territory and then discovered the Germans had stolen our deer. Fortunately cooler heads prevailed and we did not send a combat patrol to recover our deer."
But they weren't a bunch of guys out on a camping and hunting trip. The 99th Division had taken casualties, suffering 187 killed and wounded in November. The weather took a heavier toll-822 hospitalized for frostbite, pneumonia, and trench foot. In the front line, men of Charlie Company shivered in their holes as they tried to suppress their coughing. Private Swanson recalled: "We were completely on edge because of a mixture of hunger, cold and fear." The fear was caused by a rumour that German patrols were active.
Captain Charles Roland was a battalion executive officer in the 99th. Looking out of the headquarters bunker on the afternoon of December 15, he saw "fir forests whose cone-shaped evergreens standing in deep snow and sparkling with crystals formed a scene of marvellous beauty." He read the latest intelligence report from division: "The enemy has only a handful of beaten and demoralized troops in front of us and they are being supported by only two pieces of horse drawn artillery."
In fact, the American regiment was facing the I SS Panzer Corps, hidden in those beautiful firs.
As DARKNESS fell over the Eifel on December 15, a kilometre or so east of Captain Roland, a private in the Waffen SS wrote to his sister Ruth. "I write during one of the great hours before an attack-full of unrest, full of expectation for what the next days will bring. Everyone who has been here the last two days and nights (especially nights), who has witnessed hour after hour the assembly of our crack divisions, who has heard the constant rattling of panzers, knows that something is up and we are looking forward to a clear order to reduce the tension. Some believe in big wonders, but that may be shortsighted! It is enough to know we attack and will throw the enemy from our homeland."
Later, just before dawn, he added: "Overhead is the terrific noise of V-l, of artillery-the voice of war. So long now-wish me luck and think of me." He sealed the envelope and was about to hand it in when he added a scribble on the back: "Ruth! Ruth! Ruth! WE MARCH!!!"
The private was in the van of the 1st SS Panzer Division and had cause to feel elated, for he was part of a powerful reinforced armoured regiment commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Jochan Peiper. Highly regarded in the Germany army, Peiper was a veteran of the Eastern Front. Aggressive, he was single-minded in his pursuit of victory. Hitler counted on him to lead the dash to the Meuse.
Although designated a regiment, Peiper's force contained some 22,000 men and 250 tanks, 5 antiaircraft half-tracks, a battalion of 20-mm guns, 25 self-propelled guns, a battalion of 105 howitzers and two companies of engineers. As soon as the infantry opened the roads Peiper would speed west.
Major Otto Skorzeny, the most daring commando in the German army, was accompanying Peiper, along with the 500 men in the 150th Panzer Brigade. They were wearing American and British uniforms. All of them spoke English; most of them had lived for some time in Britain or the United States. They had dog tags taken from corpses and POWs. They had twenty Sherman tanks and thirty deuce-and a-half trucks. Once a breakthrough had been achieved, their mission was twofold: one group would dash ahead to the Meuse to seize bridges, while the other fanned out behind American lines to spread rumours, change signposts, and in general accelerate the panic that hits rear-echelon forces when they hear that the front line has broken.
Peiper had many worries for the man who would spearhead the greatest German army offensive since 1943. He had only learned of the attack on December 14. He was told he would make 80 kilometres the first day, all the way to the Meuse River, through rough terrain. Gasoline had been promised, but not delivered. The roads Hitler had assigned him, according to Peiper, "were not for tanks, but for bicycles."
At 0430 on December 16 Peiper briefed his troops. He stressed speed. He forbade firing into small groups of the enemy. He forbade looting. Just keep moving.
German company and battalion commanders gave upbeat briefings. For the older officers, going over to the offensive-whatever their reservations-was a heady reminder of the glorious days of 1940. For the enlisted men, striking back at the enemy to drive him from the homeland was exhilarating. Their commanders told them during the briefings that there were many American nurses in the various hospitals in Belgium, and mountains of American supplies. For many of them it sounded like they were about to enjoy the kind of campaign their older brothers, uncles, and fathers had experienced in 1940.
It was a scene they had seen in the newsreels as students. Everywhere there were new weapons and equipment in great quantity, and thousands of fine-looking troops. They marched smartly, singing lustily. Corporal Friedrich Bertenrath, a radioman with the 2nd Panzer Division, recalled:
"We had begun to act like a beaten army. Now, moving forward, the men were extremely happy and filled with enthusiasm. Everywhere there were signs of renewed hope." Still, he added, "I never thought this attack would change the tide of the war. But it was a moment to enjoy."
AT 0525 HOURS, December 16, German officers along a front of 80
kilometres were looking at their watches. There was snow on the ground, fog, and snow-laden clouds at almost ground level, perfect for the Wehrmacht. At 0530 division commanders who wanted surprise blew whistles, and their infantry began to move west in marching columns down the road, with no artillery preparation. Elsewhere, in areas where the commanders wanted pre-attack artillery, the sky vibrated with the glaring lights of thousands of V-ls, howitzers, 88s, 105s, and mortars being fired simultaneously.
At 0530 Captain Charles Roland of the 99th-which was at the critical point of the attack-was shaken by "a thunderclap of massed artillery fire amid the blinding mist." The bombardment lasted an hour. When it lifted, waves of infantry, supported by tanks, attacked. "Time appeared to stand still," Roland remembered. "My mind seemed to reject the reality of what was happening, to say it was all make-believe. One of our young lieutenants danced a rubber-legged jig as he twisted slowly, making the bullet hole between his eyes clearly visible. One moment our battalion chaplain and his assistant were kneeling beside their disabled vehicle. The next moment they were headless, decapitated by an exploding shell as if by the stroke of a guillotine." So far as Roland could tell, "the entire division was in peril of destruction."
So inexperienced were the men of the 99th Division that when the German barrage opened, they thought it was "outgoing mail," as they called American artillery firing on the Germans. They quickly discovered their mistake and jumped into their holes. As the massed firepower came down on them, Captain Roland remembered the division intelligence summary he had read, especially that part about the enemy having only two horse-drawn artillery pieces opposite them. After an hour of nonstop shelling, he remarked, "They sure worked those horses to death."
In notes that he wrote later. Lieutenant Robert Dettor of K Company, 393rd Infantry, 99th Division, described what it was like for him:
"0540-0640-Artillery concentration on position. 0640-1230-Small arms fire fight. Sent runner to Company CP for reinforcements. Runner returned stating no reinforcements, stay on position and continue fighting. Communications to CP and outposts cut."
Dettor ordered all maps and papers burned. "Sgt. Phifer wounded by rifle bullet. Enemy closing in to within twenty feet of foxhole. Took last report of ammunition. Sgt. Phifer had one clip left. I had four rounds. Burp-gun to left rear firing at my foxhole hitting Hunter. Hunter dead. At approximately 1230 position overrun."
Lieutenant Dettor expected to be shot. Instead he was kicked, relieved of his watch and $48 cash, then put to work carrying wounded German soldiers on stretchers. He got to see the German army on the move from the inside and described it vividly: "Many SS troops in vicinity. Pushed around by SS officer. Beautiful observation from enemy position. Firing still going on. Men being ushered into attack. Roads filled with vehicles, ammunition, staff cars, horse and wagons. Staff cars carrying German officer and ammunition trucks draped with large red crosses to disguise them as ambulances. Snow on ground-windy."
The Germans took Dettor's coat, gloves, and shoes, leaving him his overshoes, and put him in a column of POWs marching east. "Roads filled with heavy equipment coming to the front," Dettor noted. "Felt extremely depressed after seeing size of the attack." Then he began to cheer up as he observed, "German motor vehicles very poor. Many vehicles broken down."
LIEUTENANT Lyle Bouck commanded the Intelligence and Reconnaissance (I&R) platoon of the 394th Regiment, 99th Division. He had enlisted before the war, lying about his age. He was commissioned a second lieutenant at age eighteen. Informal in manner, he was sharp, incisive, determined-a leader. The only man younger than he in the platoon was Private William James. The platoon was near Lanzerath. Bouck kept his men up all night, sensing that something was stirring somewhere.
Shortly before dawn on December 16, the sky was lit up from the muzzle flashes of one hundred pieces of German artillery. In the light of those flashes Bouck could see great numbers of tanks and other vehicles on the German skyline. He and his men were in deep, covered foxholes, so they survived the hour-long shelling without casualties. Bouck sent a patrol forward to Lanzerath. The men came back to report a German infantry column coming towards the village.
Bouck got through to battalion headquarters on the radio. When he reported, the officer at the other end was incredulous.
"Damn it," Bouck hollered. "Don't tell me what I don't see! I have twentytwenty vision. Bring down some artillery, all the artillery you can, on the road south of Lanzerath. There's a Kraut column coming up from that direction!"
No artillery came. Bouck started pushing men into their foxholes. Including Bouck, there were eighteen of them. They were on the edge of a wood, looking down on the road into Lanzerath. Bouck, Sergeant Bill Slape, and Private James had their foxhole on the edge of the village, in a perfect position to ambush the enemy, and they had plenty of fire-power-a couple of .30-calibre machine guns, a .50-calibre on the jeep, a half-dozen BARs, and a number of submachine guns.
The German columns came marching on in close order, weapons slung. They were teenage paratroopers. The men of the I&R platoon were fingering the triggers of their weapons. Sergeant Slape took aim on the lead German. "Your mother's going to get a telegram for Christmas," he mumbled.
Bouck knocked the rifle aside. "Maybe they don't send telegrams," he said. He explained that he wanted to let the lead units pass so as to ambush the main body. He waited until about 300 men had passed his position and gone into the village. Then he saw his target. Separated from the others, three officers came along, carrying maps and binoculars, with a radioman behind-obviously the battalion CO and his staff. Private James rested his M-l on the edge of his foxhole and took careful aim.
A little blonde girl dashed out of a house down the street. Later James recalled the red ribbons in her hair. He held his fire. The girl pointed quickly at the I&R position and ran back inside. James tightened his finger on the trigger. In that split second the German officer shouted an order and dove into the ditch. So did his men, on each side of the road.
The ambush ruined, the firefight began. Through the morning, Bouck's men had the Germans pinned down. Without armoured support the German infantry couldn't fire with much effect on the men in the foxholes. By noon the I&R had taken casualties, but no fatalities. Private James kept screaming at Bouck to bring in artillery. Bouck in turn was screaming over the radio. Battalion replied that there were no guns available.
"What shall we do then?" Bouck demanded.
"Hold at all costs."
A second later a bullet hit and destroyed the radio Bouck had been holding. He was unhurt and passed on the order to hold.
Private James was amazed at the German tactics. Their paratroopers kept coming straight down the road, easy targets. "Whoever's ordering that attack," James said, "must be frantic. Nobody in his right mind would send troops into something like this without more fire support." He kept firing his BAR. Germans kept coming. He felt a certain sickness as he cut down the tall, good-looking "kids." The range was so close James could see their faces. He tried to imagine himself firing at movement, not at men.
As the Germans, despite their losses, threatened to overrun the position, James dashed to the jeep and got behind the .50-calibre. Three Germans crawled up close enough to toss grenades at Private Risto Milosevich. Unable to swing the .50-calibre fast enough, James brought up the submachine gun slung around his neck and cut the three Germans down.
By midafternoon there were 400 to 500 bodies in front of the I&R
platoon. Only one American had been killed, although half of the eighteen men were wounded. There was a lull. Bouck said to James, "I want you to take the men who want to go and get out."
"Are you coming?"
"No. I have orders to hold at all costs. I'm staying."
"Then we'll all stay."
An hour later they were both wounded, the platoon out of ammunition. They surrendered and were taken into a cafe set up as a first-aid post. James thought he was dying. He thought of the mothers of the boys he had mowed down and of his own mother. He passed out, was treated by a German doctor. When he came to, a German officer tried to interrogate him but gave it up, leaned over James's stretcher, and whispered in English, "Ami, you and your comrades are brave men."
At midnight the cuckoo clock in the cafe struck. Lieutenant Lyie Bouck, on his stretcher on the floor, turned twenty-one years old. "What a hell of a way to become a man," he mumbled to himself.
BOUCK AND his men had successfully blocked the Lanzerath road against a full strength German battalion for a day, inflicting catastrophic casualties of more than l50 per cent. Such heroism and combat effectiveness could hardly be equalled. But in many ways the I&R platoon's experience was typical.
In the 99th Division alone there were any number of junior officers, NCOs, and enlisted men who, although new to combat, stood to their guns, to the dismay of the Germans. At Losheimergraben railroad station Captain Neil Brown's Company L, 394th Infantry, held through the day. At one point, when a Tiger tank appeared. Lieutenant Dewey Flankers ran up to it and launched an antitank grenade up the bore of the cannon before it could fire. Scores of unrecorded actions were taken independently, as communication between platoons was poor, between companies and regimental headquarters nonexistent.
All along the front, from Monschau to the north down to Echternach in the south, German attacks passed through gaps in the line and surrounded the American positions. But the Americans in many cases fought back with every weapon available to them-usually just small arms. They stacked up German bodies and held the crossroads, preventing German tanks from bursting through.
With the few German units in which tanks accompanied the infantry, the Americans had less success. Private Roger Foehringer of the artillery was attached to the 99th, billeted on the outskirts of Bullingen, Belgium. At 0700 on December 16 he was put to work with two others carrying a case of grenades up a hill to a machine-gun pit. "We were not to the point where we could see over the hill, when down on us came a German Tiger." Foehringer jumped into a row of bushes along the road. He lost his rifle and helmet but was untouched by the tank's machinegun bursts. It moved on, to be followed by another, then a half-track with infantry in the back.
"There is no feeling like being alone, being unarmed, and not knowing what to do," Foehringer recalled. Instinct told him to get back to where he came from, the farmhouse on the edge of Biillingen. He took off cross-country and made it. He found a guy who had fired at one of the German tanks and missed. As the tank began to swing its cannon at their position, Foehringer and his buddy ran for the farmhouse. They found two carbines and went up to the second floor, where they broke the windows and began firing at German troops spread across the field.
"It was real easy shooting," Foehringer said, "until we heard the rumble of a tank." As it began to fire, Foehringer ran down to the cellar, where he found a dozen or so GIs destroying their weapons. The tank shoved its cannon through the basement window, and a voice yelled, "Rausf Raus!"
Foehringer and the others gave up. They were marched east. In Hons-feld, Foehringer saw stark evidence of the kind of fight others in the 99th had put up. In the cemetery "there were frozen corpses behind head stones. You could see that they had fought, one guy at a headstone, another behind a headstone, and there they were frozen just as they had been shot." In the road there were uncountable German bodies-uncountable because so many tanks and trucks had run over them.
"They were like pancakes. We tried to detour around them but the guards made us march over them."
Mainly the story of December 16 was one of thwarted German plans. Although they had infiltrated throughout the American line, nowhere had they taken the crossroads that would allow their tanks to roam free behind the lines. As night fell, Hitler's timetable was already falling apart, thanks to an unknown squad of GIs here, a platoon over there, fighting although surrounded and fighting until their ammunition gave out.
To THE SOUTH the 106th Division was penetrated in numerous places, as was the 28th. The Germans achieved surprise but not a breakthrough. General Hasso von Manteuffel, commander of the Fifth Panzer Army, later told interviewers that the GIs put up a "tenacious and brave resistance with skilfully fought combat tactics."
The army's official historian, Charles MacDonald, writes of one regiment of the 28th Division, "With only two battalions supported for part of the day by two companies of medium tanks, the 110th Infantry had held off four German regiments and had nowhere been routed. That was around two thousand men versus at least ten thousand." That sentence encompasses hundreds of stories of heroism, most of which will never be known.
LIEUTENANT Bouck's fight continued to shape the battle. Around midnight, December 16-17, Lieutenant Colonel Peiper reached the Lanz-erath area. The German infantry commanders told him of the strong resistance ahead. They had been repelled three times with terrible losses. Peiper took command. He put two Panther tanks in front of the column, followed by a series of armoured half tracks and then another half-dozen tanks, with thirty captured American trucks behind them, and sixteen 88s at the rear. At 0400 hours they roared off, only to discover the village was empty.
Peiper was now loose behind American lines. The only Americans in the vicinity were service troops, drivers, medical personnel-nothing to stop an armoured column with such firepower.
By 0800 Peiper had gassed up his vehicles with captured fuel. Then he headed west towards Malmedy. Peiper was running parallel to Elsenborn Ridge, the dominant physical feature of that part of the Ardennes. The nature of his thrust, meanwhile, was pushing men of the 99th and 2nd divisions back towards the ridge. The ridge was unoccupied, undefended. Whoever got there first would have the high ground and thus the decisive advantage.
Peiper's breakthrough was one of many that morning. The sheer weight of German numbers could not be denied. Americans continued to fight, but without ammunition resupply they couldn't do much. Many surrendered. Two regiments of the 106th surrendered-7,500 men, the biggest mass surrender in the war against Germany. Everywhere Major Skorzeny's disguised, English-speaking units began to spread panic, issue false orders, switch road signs, and otherwise carry out their missions, but the units assigned to take the Meuse bridges failed in their task.
BRADLEY SPENT most of December 16 driving from Luxembourg city to Versailles, so he was out of touch. At the Trianon Palace Hotel, Eisenhower's headquarters, he found his boss in a good mood. Eisenhower had just received word of his promotion to the rank of five-star general. At dusk an intelligence officer arrived with news. There had been an enemy attack that morning in the Ardennes. Bradley dismissed it as of little consequence, just a local spoiling attack. But an hour later another report came in-there were at least twelve German divisions involved.
Bradley still thought it an irritant, nothing major. Eisenhower disagreed. Studying the map, he ordered Bradley to send the 7th Armoured Division to St. Vith on the northern flank and the 12th Armoured to Echternach in the south. The 12th was scheduled to attack east of Metz, Bradley reminded Eisenhower, and Patton would be furious at having to call off his offensive. "Tell him," Eisenhower replied, "that Ike is running this damn war."
Hitler was certain it would take Eisenhower two or three days to recognize the extent of the threat and assumed that he would not be willing to call off his offensives north and south of the Ardennes until he had checked with Churchill and Roosevelt. Eisenhower proved him wrong on both points. He saw that not only was this a major offensive but that it was the best thing that could happen. The Germans were out of their fixed fortifications, out in the open where American artillery, tanks, infantry, and fighter-bombers would be capable of destroying them.
On the morning of December 17 Eisenhower ordered the 101st and 82nd Airborne, then refitting in Reims, into the battle. He sent the 101st to Bastogne, a crossroads town in the centre of the German thrust. He wanted it held at all costs and ordered a command team from the 10th Armoured Division to join the 101st there. He sent the 82nd to the northern flank, near Elsenborn.
Hitler had thought that it would take Eisenhower days to move reinforcements into the Ardennes. He was wrong about that one too. The airborne divisions could not go to their position by plane, as the weather continued to be foggy, snowy, cold. But Eisenhower had trucks. He ordered the drivers in the Red Ball Express to use all their resources as troop carriers. On December 17 alone, 11,000 trucks carried 60,000 men, plus ammunition, medical supplies, and other materiel into the Ardennes. In the first week of the battle Eisenhower was able to move 250,000 men into the fray. This was mobility unprecedented in the history of war. Not even in Vietnam, not even in Desert Storm, was the US Army capable of moving so many men and so much equipment so quickly.
Still, it took time to recover from the initial blow and regroup. Meanwhile, hundreds of German tanks were loose behind the front lines, free to move in almost any direction.
ON DECEMBER 17 the sky over Belgium was overcast, but the Luftwaffe pilots flew between 600 and 700 sorties in support of the ground forces. A thousand and more Allied pilots were there to meet them over St. Vith and began a daylong dogfight.
Captain Jack Barensfeld led a twelve-plane squadron of P-47s. When he arrived on the scene, he "saw two or three fighters on fire, spiralling towards the ground both sides. I saw a Thunderbolt going down in flames. Enemy aircraft all over the place. Our controller, 'Organ,' is calm and calling in a prime target-a pontoon bridge across the River Rur. Many enemy vehicles backed up behind it. A great amount of flak coming up. Three or four of our aircraft received battle damage but no one aborted. We used our bombs and rockets on the vehicles and the bridge, then set up several strafing passes. There were burning vehicles and some damage to the bridge when we left after about 20 minutes."
On the ground the Germans made their major breakthrough in the centre, in the direction of Bastogne, but had their own problems. Armoured units flowed to the west not in an even stream, but irregularly from traffic jam to traffic jam. The road net in the Ardennes was just as Eisenhower had said it would be, inadequate. Much of the German artillery was horse-drawn, which added greatly to the congestion.
All through December 17 Peiper continued to drive west, avoiding Elsenborn Ridge, looking for bridges, gasoline dumps, ammunition dumps, blasting pockets of resistance out of the way when necessary. By 1600 hours Peiper had reached the outskirts of Stavelot. The town was clogged with American vehicles. He subjected it to a bombardment from his tanks, then sent his armoured infantry to attack the town. As darkness fell, American small arms repulsed the enemy. Through the night Peiper watched as the Americans pulled out their trucks, heading west.
Peiper's success in breaking through was heady stuff to the Germans. Even if he was behind schedule, it had been a glorious couple of days. Corporal Bertenrath recalled: "We enjoyed those first days of success, moving forward, taking prisoners and, above all, capturing the wonderful provisions we found in Allied vehicles: chocolate, cigarettes, potatoes, vegetables, meat, and even something for dessert. I asked my squad, 'My God, how do they manage such things?'" But being behind American lines gave Bertenrath a sense of impending doom, because "on one road through the forest were stacks of shells that stretched for, I would guess, two kilometres both left and right-we drove through an alley of shells. I had never seen the like of it. I told my squad, 'My God, their supplies are unlimited!'"
At dawn, December 18, Peiper instructed two Panther commanders to charge Stavelot at maximum speed. They drove around the curve, firing rapidly, and penetrated the antitank obstacle at the curve. The Germans followed up with other vehicles, and the Americans evacuated the town. Not, however, before destroying the gasoline dump at Stavelot. Sergeant Jack Mocnik and two others of the 526th Armoured Infantry Battalion drove a jeep up the hill to the gasoline dump, accompanied by two halftracks. Mocnik's party began firing .30-and .50 calibre machine-gun bursts into jerry cans of gas, and finally they got one to catch fire. As they scrambled away, "the darndest fire you ever saw flared up," Mocnik recalled. "The cans would explode and fly through the air like rockets trailing fire and smoke."
Frustrated, Peiper drove at top speed to get to Trois-Ponts (Three Bridges). Once across the Ambleve and Salm rivers, which flowed together in the village, he would have an open road to the Meuse.
IN SOME American headquarters, at supply dumps, and in the field there was confusion if not chaos. Men set to burning papers and maps, destroying weapons, and running to the rear. There was a breakdown in discipline, compounded by the breakdown of some colonels. Among many, fear drove all rational thought out of their mind. Go west as fast as possible was the only thought.
On December 17 the trickle of frightened men fleeing the battle began to turn into a stream. By December 18 the stream was becoming a flood. Waves of panic rolled westwards. In Belgium and northern France, American flags hanging from windows were discreetly pulled inside. In Paris the whores put away their English-language phrase books and retrieved their German versions.
On the third day of the attack, December 19, German armour began to acquire momentum; the greatest gains made by the armoured spearhead columns were achieved that day. As the Germans straightened out their traffic jams behind the front, the Americans in retreat were colliding with the reinforcements Eisenhower had sent to the battle, causing a monumental traffic jam of their own.
The US Army in retreat was a sad spectacle. When the 101st Airborne got to Bastogne on December 19, the columns of reinforcements marched down both sides of the road towards the front. Down the middle of the road came defeated American troops, fleeing the front in disarray, mob-like. Many had thrown away their rifles, coats, all encumbrances. Some were in a panic, staggering, exhausted, shouting,
"Run! They'll murder you! They'll kill you! They've got tanks, machine guns, air power, everything!"
"They were just babbling," Major Dick Winters of the 506th PIR recalled.
"It was pathetic. We felt ashamed."
Reporter Jack Belden described the retreat as he saw it in the Ardennes on December 17, 1944. There were long convoys of trucks, carrying gasoline, portable bridges, and other equipment, headed west, with tanks and other armed vehicles mixed in. "I noticed in myself a feeling that I had not had for some years. It was the feeling of guilt that seems to come over you whenever you retreat. You don't like to look anyone in the eyes. It seems as if you have done something wrong. I perceived this feeling in others too. The road was jammed with every conceivable kind of vehicle. An enemy plane came down and bombed and strafed the column, knocking three trucks off the road, shattering trees and causing everyone to flee to ditches." Jabos in reverse. Then came the buzz bombs, or V-ls. "It went on all night. There must have been a buzz bomb or a piloted plane raid somewhere every five minutes."
Every man for himself. It was reminiscent of the German retreat through the Falaise gap. But there were critical differences. All along the front scattered groups of men stuck to their guns. They cut the German infantry columns down as a scythe cuts through a wheat field. The GIs were appalled at how the enemy infantry came on, marching down the middle of a road, their weapons slung, without reconnaissance of any sort, without armour support. The German soldiers knew nothing of infantry tactics. What was happening was exactly what Eisenhower had predicted-the Volkssturm divisions were not capable of effective action outside their bunkers. In far too many cases, however, they were attacking eighteen-and nineteen-year-old barely trained Americans. Both sides had been forced to turn to their children to fight the war to a conclusion.
Another difference between the German retreat in August and the American retreat was that as the beaten, terrified GIs fled west down the middle of the road, there were combat reinforcements on each side headed east, marching to the sound of the guns.
AT DAWN on December 19, as German tanks prepared to surround Bastogne and the 101st marched into the town, Eisenhower met with his senior commanders in a cold, damp squad room in a barracks at Verdun, the site of the greatest battle ever fought. There was but one lone potbellied stove to ease the bitter cold. Elsenhower's lieutenants entered the room glum, depressed, embarrassed-as they should have been, given the magnitude of the intelligence failure.
Eisenhower walked in, looked disapprovingly at the downcast generals, and boldly declared, "The present situation is to be regarded as one of opportunity for us and not of disaster. There will be only cheerful faces at this conference table."
Patton quickly picked up the theme. "Hell, let's have the guts to let the bastards go all the way to Paris," he said. "Then we'll really cut 'em off and chew 'em up." He had already seen the obvious: the Germans were putting their heads in a noose. By attacking the southern shoulder of the salient with his Third Army, Patton could cut enemy supply lines, isolate the tanks inside what was already being called "the Bulge," and destroy them. Before leaving Metz, he had told his staff to begin the preparations for switching his attack line. So when Ike asked him how long it would take for two Third Army corps that were facing east to turn and face north and attack the German flank, Patton boldly replied,
Elsenhower's decisiveness and Patton's boldness were electrifying. Their mood quickly spread through the system. Dispirited men were energized. For those on the front line, help was coming.
From the Supreme Commander down to the lowliest private, men pulled up their socks and went forth to do their duty. It simplifies, but not by much, to say that here, there, everywhere, from top to bottom, the men of the US Army in northwest Europe shook themselves and made this a defining moment in their own lives and in the history of the army. They didn't like retreating, they didn't like getting kicked around, and as individuals, squads, and companies they decided they were going to make the enemy pay.