BY MIDDAY, December 20, Charlie Company, 395th Infantry Regiment, 99th Division, had been retreating for three and a half days, mostly without sleep and water and enough food, through mud that was so deep "that men carrying heavy weapons frequently mired in mud so others had to take their weapons and pull them out. In one area it took one and a half hours to cover a hundred metres." Sergeant Vernon Swanson said that when word came down at 1700 hours that the regiment was withdrawing to Elsenborn Ridge, where it would dig in beside the 2nd Division, "it was certainly good news. We felt it was the equivalent of saying we were returning to the United States."
The journey to Elsenborn, however, Swanson remembered "as the worst march of that week," because of the combination of mud, ice, frozen ground, and snow all along the route. "We left most of our supplies behind," Swanson said, "but our weapons were always ready. Throughout this entire journey our men made their way, cold, tired, miserable, stumbling, cursing the Army, the weather and the Germans, yet none gave up."
They arrived on the ridge around midnight, and although beyond exhaustion, the men dug in. A good thing, because at dawn a German artillery shelling came down on them. Swanson's company took seven casualties, four of them sergeants, "which opened up the field for promotions." One of those hit was Swanson, who got wounded in the neck by shrapnel. Litter bearers brought him to an aid station, where a chaplain bent over him. "I could dimly make out his collar ornament which was a Star of David. He, in turn, misread my dogtag, thought I was a Catholic and gave me last rites. I remember thinking that I really had all bases covered."
Peiper could have taken Elsenborn without difficulty on the seventeenth or eighteenth, but he stuck with Hitler's orders and moved west rather than north once through the American line. The low ridge should have been a main objective of the Germans, but the Americans got there first and dug in. Now only a direct frontal assault could oust them from the position.
The Germans tried. "The first night at Elsenborn is unforgettable," Captain Charles Roland of the 99th wrote later. "The flash and roar of exploding shells was incessant. In all directions the landscape was a Dante's inferno of burning towns and villages." His regiment dug furiously throughout the night. "Everyone was aware that there would be no further withdrawal, whatever the cost."
Enemy mortar and artillery fire hit the 99th. American artillery fired continuously. At night the temperature fell well below zero. "The wind blew in a gale that drove the pellets of snow almost like shot into our faces," Robert Merriman wrote. "Providing hot food on the front line became impossible, and we were obliged to live exclusively on K rations. Remaining stationary in damp, cold foxholes, with physical activity extremely limited, we began to suffer casualties from trenchfoot. The extreme cold, fatigue, boredom, and hazard became maddening. A few men broke under the strain, wetting themselves repeatedly, weeping, vomiting, or showing other physical symptoms." But there was no more retreating.
The fighting was at its most furious in the twin villages of Rocherath and Krinkelt, on the eastern edge of the ridge. There a battalion from the 2nd Infantry Division engaged a German armoured division in a wild melee that included hand-to-hand combat. American tank crews knew they could not take on the big German tanks toe to toe, so they allowed the Panthers and Tigers to close on their positions for an intricate game of cat and mouse among the village streets and alleys. Shermans remained hidden behind walls, buildings, and hedgerows, waiting for a German tank to cross their sights. Most engagements took place at ranges of less than 25 metres. The 57-mm antitank guns of the Americans were cumbersome, with too little firepower to have much effect. The bazooka, however, was highly effective within the villages, especially after dark, when bazooka teams could work their way close enough to the German tanks.
Sergeant Arnold Parish of the 2nd Infantry had made the D-Day landing, when he won the Bronze Star, had been wounded on June 9, and had rejoined his unit in August, so he had four months of combat by midDecember. He agreed: Elsenborn was the toughest. "We were helpless," Parish recalled, "and all alone and there was nothing we could do, so I prayed to God." During the nights "the time went by very slow as I tried to keep warm but that wasn't possible so I thought about my mother and hoped she didn't know where I was or what I was doing. I was glad I was not married."
SOUTHWEST OF Elsenborn the 82nd Airborne was arriving to stop Peiper's rush westwards. On December 20 Colonel Ben Vandervoort's 2nd Battalion, 505th PIR, arrived at Trois-Ponts, where the Salm and Ambleve rivers flowed together. Vandervoort put E Company on the east side of the Salm. By 0300 hours they were in position to ambush any German force coming from the east. There they waited, no fires, no lights, no smoking, all wide awake.
German armour-Peiper's-was coming on, accompanied by infantry. Peiper had a twenty-to-one manpower advantage over Vandervoort and a colossal firepower superiority. The American paratroopers had only one little 57-mm antitank gun, six bazookas, and the ultralight airborne 75-mm pack howitzer for artillery.
At 0315 hours, as an armoured German vehicle rounded a curve on the road and wound its way down to the river, a bazooka team bushwhacked it. After the German crew fled, the paratroopers placed a minefield on the far side of the burning hulk. At 0400 a second armoured vehicle blew itself up on the mines.
At first light on December 21, Peiper attacked E Company with infantry and five tanks. Bazookas and the antitank gun knocked out the armour. Men in the foxholes drove back the infantry with great loss. From the west bank the Americans could see Peiper's tanks, artillery, and mobile flak batteries massing for another attack.
Vandervoort sent F Company across the river to support E Company with a flank attack, but it had little effect. Vandervoort later remarked that "disaster seemed imminent, but not one man of E company left his fighting position." He jumped into a jeep and had his driver take him over the bridge and to the bluff above the east bank. He arrived at the CP just as the first wave of German infantry attacked, supported by tanks firing their cannon and machine guns spraying the American positions.
Vandervoort jumped out of his jeep and ran to the CO, Lieutenant William Meddaugh. "Pull out," he ordered, "and do it now!"
As Meddaugh passed on the word, Vandervoort began driving down the bluff to the riverbank, "urged on by swarms of nine-millimetre rounds from Schmeisser machine pistols." On the bluff, Meddaugh's men withdrew, using lessons from close quarter fighting in Holland. In Vandervoort's words, they "intuitively improvised walking fire in reverse. Moving backward and using the trees for cover, they simply out-shot any pursuer who crowded them too closely."
When the GIs reached the edge of the bluff, they had to jump down a sheer cliff, pick themselves up (there were a number of broken bones and sprained ankles), run a 100-metre gauntlet across a road, cross over a railroad track, and wade the icy river. GIs in the town along the west bank fired at any German who showed on the opposite bluff. E Company made it to the town with 33 per cent casualties, all of whom were carried to the battalion aid station. When every man was accounted for, engineers blew the bridge.
Vandervoort described the E Company survivors as they came into Trois-Ponts: "They were a tired, ragged, rugged looking bunch. But what I saw was beautiful. About one hundred troopers, with weapons and ammunition, still ready to fight."
Then, as Vandervoort recalled, "A Tiger tank appeared on the edge of the bluff road. The menacing white skull-and-crossbones of the SS insignia, and the black and-white battle cross painted on its armour were clearly visible. It depressed its long-barrelled, bulbous muzzle and began firing point-blank down into our houses."
A couple of bazooka rounds hit the Tiger but only bounced off. Vandervoort called for the mortar platoon to go after the tank. The men selected white phosphorus to reduce German visibility. "The first round hit the Tiger right in front of the turret. Searing phosphorous globules arched in all directions. Enemy infantry soldiers near the tank scattered like quail. The driver slapped the now-not-so-menacing monster into reverse and accelerated back into the concealment of the woods," Vandervoort said.
Now the division artillery observer called in fire that forced the enemy to take to the wood, there to spend the remainder of the day. After dark German infantry tried to ford the Salm, but were beaten back. Peiper went north to find a bridge, but never found one he could take. TroisPonts turned out to be his high-water mark.
IF HITLER made his biggest investment in Peiper, he made his best in Otto Skorzeny's battalion, which had spread out in Peiper's wake. Throughout the Bulge those 500 or so volunteers in American uniforms were having an impact beyond their numbers. They turned signposts, causing great confusion. They spread panic. Once it was known that the Skorzeny battalion was behind the lines, the word went out with amazing speed:
trust no one. The GIs, especially MPs, questioned everyone, right up to Bradley: Who plays centre field for the Yankees? Who is Mickey Mouse's wife? What is the capital of Illinois? General Bradley was detained for answering Springfield to the last question; the MP insisted it was Chicago. One general was arrested and held for a few hours because he put the Chicago Cubs in the American League.
By December 21, however, a number of Skorzeny's men had been captured or shot, and the remainder were trying to get back inside German lines. One German in an American officer's uniform drove a jeep to a roadblock, where he was interrogated. The German's speech and identification papers were flawless-too flawless, it turned out. The authentic Adjutant General's Office Identification Card, carried by all GIs, had printed at the top: "NOT A PASS-FOR
INDENTIFICATION ONLY." With Teutonic exactness the German forger had corrected the spelling, so that the forged card read
"IDENTIFICATION." That missing n cost the German officer his life.
The GIs spent an inordinate amount of time checking on each other. Meanwhile, a rumour started by captured members of Skorzeny's battalion was widely circulated-it was that the main mission was to assassinate Eisenhower. Thus everyone at SHAEF became super security conscious. Guards with machine guns took up places all around the Trianon Palace, and when Eisenhower went to a meeting, he was led and followed by armed guards in jeeps. That kind of security, commonplace around the world a half-century later, was so unusual in 1944 that it left an impression of panic.
But Eisenhower was far from panicked. On December 21 his confidence was great because his basic situation was so good. He was rushing reinforcements to the battle, men and equipment, in great numbers. Major John Harrison, at First Army headquarters, wrote to his wife on December 22: "There is something quite thrilling about seeing all of the troops and armour moving in on the Kraut. There has been a steady stream for days and though the Belgians are mighty worried I am sure they are amazed at the sights they see. The armour moves about 25 miles an hour in and out of towns and to see and hear a tank roar through a fair sized town, turn on one tread and never slow down is quite a sight."
IN THE MIDDLE of the Bulge, the Germans had made better progress than Peiper had managed, but the 101st Airborne and others got to Bastogne before they did. The Germans surrounded the Americans, and from December 19 on, launched fifteen divisions at Bastogne, four of them armoured, supported by heavy artillery.
Inside the perimeter casualties piled up in the aid stations. Most went untreated because a German party had captured the division's medical supplies and doctors. Nevertheless, spirits stayed strong. Corporal Gordon Carson took some shrapnel in his leg and was brought into town. At the aid station he "called a medic over and said,
'Hey, how come you got so many wounded people around here? Aren't we evacuating anybody?'"
"Haven't you heard?" the medic replied. "They've got us surrounded-the poor bastards."
As the battle for Bastogne raged, it caught the attention of the world. The inherent drama, the circled-wagons image, the heroic resistance, and the daily front-page maps combined to make the 101st the most famous American division of the war. But the 101st was not alone inside Bastogne. A combat command team of the 10th Armoured was there, along with supporting units from engineers, antiaircraft units, and more. What stands out about the defence of Bastogne was the combinedarms approach the GIs used. It was something to learn for the paratroopers, who had in Normandy and Holland fought pretty much on their own.
Now they had tanks but no advanced knowledge of the techniques of infantry fighting with tanks. Even as the battle raged, Colonel William Roberts, CO of the 10th Armoured, circulated among the paratroopers, giving them tips on the employment of tanks. Lieutenant Colonel Harry Kinnard, the lOlst's operations officer, organized the four infantry regiments into a combined-arms team, each with its permanent attachment of tanks, TDs (tank destroyers), and antitank guns. Each team was responsible for a roadblock, a crossroads, or a position on prominent terrain.
Corporal Robert Bowen, 401st Glider Infantry, 101st, a wounded veteran of Normandy and Holland, was a squad leader on the western sector of the 30 kilometre perimeter. At dawn on December 21following a below zero night with ankle-deep snow on the groundBowen's CO told him the enemy had slipped through and established a roadblock between the 101st and Bastogne. "That roadblock has to be taken out, Bowen," the CO said. He gave Bowen two squads and told him to get at it.
"Short, sweet and scary," Bowen characterized the order. He wished the regiment had an officer to put in charge, but it didn't. He discussed the situation with his men and agreed there had to be a better way than just charging the houses at the roadblock. At that moment a tank appeared.
"Suppose I take care of those houses with my cannon?" the tanker asked. "My fifty-cal can rake those foxholes dug in around them. OK?"
"OK?" Bowen replied. "Man, you've just come from heaven."
They went at it. The tank began to fire, cannon and machine gun. Bowen's squads moved down the road, shooting as they walked. Within a half-hour some of the Germans were fleeing, while others threw up their hands. "It was a textbook attack," Bowen said, "working better than anything we had ever done in practice."
The threat met and defeated, Bowen went back to his original position. That night the thermometer plunged again. "The night passed like a horrible dream," Bowen remembered. "Nothing I could do could keep me warm. I begged for dawn to come."
When it did, a heavy ground fog reduced visibility to near zero. Germans used the cover to move in on the American positions; their white camouflage clothing helped hide them. As Bowen put it, they were "opaque figures in snow suits emerging from nowhere." A fierce firefight ensued. Bowen looked for the tank that had been so helpful the previous day. He found it, badly damaged. The tanker had been firing the .50-calibre when an antitank shell hit the turret just under him. His face was horribly cut by shrapnel. Bowen got him to an aid station, then returned to position.
Things couldn't have been much worse. Germans were scattered in a semicircle around him, firing at his men in their holes. There were eleven German tanks supporting the infantry. Bowen could do nothing about them because the 57-mm antitank gun assigned to his team was useless-its wheels were frozen solid in the ground, and it could not be moved.
A half-track pulled up, bringing a squad of fighting men forward. Bowen checked his line. His casualties were mounting. He picked up a bazooka and three shells from the half-track, took careful aim at a Tiger 200 metres distant, fired-and grazed the turret. A mortar shell found Bowen's position. He was badly wounded and, shortly thereafter, captured. German doctors treated him, then sent him east to a POW camp. So it went for the armoured troopers and airborne infantry in Bastogne.
LIEUTENANT Helmuth Henke was an aide to General Fritz Bayerlein, CO of the Panzer Lehr Division, which had been reconstituted after its pounding in France. On December 22 Bayerlein handed him a letter from the "German Commander to the USA Commander of the encircled town of Bastogne." It demanded an
"honorable surrender to save the encircled USA troops from total annihilation." Bayerlein told Henke, who spoke good English, to join a colonel from the staff, get a couple of enlisted men and two white flags, approach the American lines, and deliver the letter.
All went well. The GIs stopped firing when the German party waved its white flags. The Germans came into American lines, where Henke told a lieutenant that he had a message for the CO. The lieutenant blindfolded the Germans and drove them to General Anthony McAuliffe's headquarters. Henke, still blindfolded, handed over Bayerlein's demand.
McAuliffe read it, and a short while later said, "Take them back," as a staff officer placed McAuliffe's reply into Henke's hand. The Germans were driven back to the front, where their blindfolds were removed. Henke finally had a chance to read McAuliffe's response. It said, "Nuts." He looked at his American escort, Colonel Joseph Harper. "Nuts?" he asked, in disbelief.
"It means, 'Go to hell,'" Harper replied.
Henke knew what that meant. Before departing for his own lines, "I told the American officer what I told every soldier whom I took prisoner,
'May you make it back to your homeland safe and sound.'"
"Go to hell," was Harper's reply.
ON DECEMBER 23 the skies cleared. The Allied air force, grounded for a week, went into action. Medium bombers hit German bridges and rail yards around and behind the Eifel. Jabos shot up German vehicles and columns. Captain Gerd von Fallois, commanding a German tank unit outside Bastogne, called it "psychologically fantastic. Aeroplanes everywhere. Thousands." He added, "I didn't see a single Luftwaffe plane."
American transport C-47s dropped tons of supplies into Bastogne-medicine, food, blankets, ammunition-with an over 90 per cent success rate. The Germans continued to attack-they launched one of their heaviest assaults on Christmas Day-but they made no gains against the resupplied men of the 10th Armoured and the 101st Airborne.
From the Battle of Trois-Ponts on, events had turned rapidly. As Major Guderian of the 116th Panzer Division put it, "We started with fuel enough for only fifty kilometres." Captured American fuel gave them enough for another twenty kilometres. Meanwhile, behind the German lines the traffic jams had been straightened out, so more fuel and ammunition could be brought forward. But as Guderian remarked,
"We had no defence against air attacks."
Peiper's advance ended. That afternoon he got an order via radio-withdraw. For the Germans the offensive phase of the Battle of the Bulge was over. One of Peiper's privates, Giinter Bruckner, asked a question to which the answer was obvious: "We were so well equipped, beautiful weapons, but what is the use of having a brand-new tank, but no gas? What is the use of having a machine gun when I have no more ammunition?"
Or what is the use of having the world's best fighter aeroplane when there is no fuel to run it? By this stage the Germans had built hundreds of single-engine jets (Messerschmitt 163s) and twin-engine jets (ME-262s) and were going into production on a jet bomber. The Americans were not going to have jets until October. Some Allied airmen worried that if the war went on, the Germans might regain control of the sky. But the Luftwaffe was without fuel. The all-out bomber assault on German refineries and oil-related targets had a cumulative effect that was devastating.
For the Wehrmacht almost everything had gone wrong, all of it predictable. It had been madness to attack in the Ardennes-an area with the most difficult terrain and least adequate road system in all of Western Europe-with insufficient fuel. Of course Eisenhower had tried to continue the Allied offensive in September and October when his troops had insufficient fuel. But by December the Allies had fuel dumps throughout Belgium and Luxembourg. Now it was the Germans' turn to retreat, abandoning their vehicles and weapons in disarray. Their week of glory was over.
DURING CHRISTMAS season of 1944 there were some 4 million young soldiers on the Western Front, the great majority of them Protestants or Catholics. They said the same prayers when they were being shelled, directed to the same God. They joined in denouncing godless communism, which was one side's ally and the other side's enemy.
In World War II no hatred matched that felt by Americans against Japanese, or Russians against Germans, and vice versa. But in Northwest Europe there was little racial hatred between the Americans and the Germans. How could there be when cousins were fighting cousins? About one third of the US Army in ETO was German American in origin.
The season highlighted their closeness. Americans and Germans alike put up Christmas trees and used the debris of war-like chaff, the tinfoil dropped by bombers to fool radar-to decorate them. Men who would never do such a thing at any other time prepared gifts for other men. On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day men on both sides of the line sang the same carols. The universal favourite was "Silent Night." Nearly every one of those 4 million men on the Western Front was homesick. Loneliness was their most shared emotion. Christmas meant family, and family and home meant life.
They couldn't go home just yet, however, so the GIs did what they could to make where they were look like home. The 99th Division had taken its position in the Ardennes and gone to work building double-walled shelters. "We looked forward to spending Christmas secure in our log bunkers," one sergeant wrote, "with a decorated tree, singing carols and enjoying a hot meal."
Most rear-echelon people lived and slept in houses. Sometimes frontline men, too, when the line ran down the middle of a village. If a village had been or was the scene of a battle, its civilian population was usually gone. The first men into the village got first crack at looting what the combat troops wanted most-food, a change in diet. Shelves of canned fruits, vegetables, and meats made for some memorable holiday feasts.
Corporal Clair Galdonik of the 90th Division found himself on Christmas Eve in an undestroyed home just inside Germany. His company had occupied the town at dusk. The Germans thought civilians were still there. To keep them fooled, the CO told the men to build fires. The smoke rising from the homes worked: there was no shelling that night. But in Galdonik's house the chimney wasn't drawing. Smoke filled the room. Galdonik investigated. He found that the stovepipes were stuffed with smoked hams and sausages the German family had tried to hide. There was enough to provide his squad with two days of banqueting.
There was no general cease-fire anywhere on Christmas Day. Apparently it never occurred to anyone to suggest it. But the urge to go to church was widely felt. Private George McAvoy of the 9th Armoured Division was in Fratin, Belgium, on Christmas Eve. He attended a midnight mass along with every man in his company not on duty and most of the town's inhabitants. As the church was jammed, the GIs took seats in the rear. They were in combat dress and armed, which caused considerable embarrassment. Rifles leaned against the hardwood pews would slip and crash to the floor. The men put their helmets under the pews in front of them; when people knelt they kicked the helmets and sent them spinning.
"It was the noisiest service I ever attended," McAvoy wrote. "But the sense of comfort, well-being and safety was amazing."
Throughout the service McAvoy noted the boys up in the choir stall were giggling. It turned out that one of the squads had gone into the church shortly after dark, thrown their bedrolls down around the altar, and gone to sleep. When the priest arrived, he let them sleep. What set the boys to giggling was the sight of one of the GIs suddenly waking up, hearing the organ and seeing the priest, and crying out, "I've bought it!"
GENERAL McAULIFFE was all pumped up. His boys had held, the skies had cleared, and help was coming. McAuliffe's men in the foxholes were not so upbeat. Their Christmas Eve dinner consisted of cold beans. In his company Captain Winters was last to go for chow. All he got was "five white beans and a cup of cold broth." At least his company didn't get attacked on Christmas Day. On the other side of Bastogne the Germans launched their heaviest attacks ever to try one last time to break through. They failed.
That was but one of many attacks launched by both sides. They were there to kill, holy day or not. The dead and dying were all around. Sergeant Bruce Egger's company attacked a village late on the afternoon of Christmas Eve. German machine guns hit the advancing GIs. Two men were wounded, one killed. The platoon dug in. Egger recalled: "A wounded man kept crying, 'Mother, Mother! Help me!' as he struggled to rise. Another burst from the machine gun silenced him. That beseeching plea on that clear, cold Christmas night will remain with me for the rest of my life."
Private Phillip Stark, a nineteen-year-old machine gunner in the 84th Division, arrived on Christmas Eve at a position outside the Belgian village of Verdenne on the northern shoulder of the Bulge. At twilight the German troops in Verdenne began to celebrate. Stark wrote later,
"Sounds and songs carried well across the cold clear air." Too well for Stark's liking, however: officers at regimental level heard the songs and ordered Stark's platoon to attack and drive the Germans from the town. That meant going up a hill. In the dark the company got to the top, only to be shelled by American artillery. Stark and his buddy Wib tried to dig in, but below the frozen earth there was rock. Despite frantic efforts, when dawn came, "our hole was only about a foot deep and six feet long. Wib was 6'2" and I'm 6'6", but at least we were able to keep ourselves below the all important ground level. This is how we spent Christmas Eve in 1944."
Christmas morning Stark got to talking about stories he had heard from the First World War, when on Christmas the front-line soldiers would declare a truce. "We longed for a day of peace and safety." Instead, they got a German barrage intended to cover the retreat of German vehicles. Stark began cutting down fleeing enemy infantry. "Only on this Christmas Day did I ever find combat to be as pictured in the movies. We blazed away ruthlessly," he wrote.
At dawn the following day German infantry and tanks counterattacked. The remainder of the platoon retreated, but Stark stayed with his machine gun, even when Wib took a bullet in the middle of his forehead. "Now I was alone and for the first time I was sure that I too was going to die. But I kept on firing, hoping to keep them off. By now three enemy tanks were very close and firing their machine guns and cannon directly at my position." A German bullet ricocheted off his machine gun, broke into bits, and slammed into his cheek, blinding him in the left eye. He ran to the rear, over the hill, and back to where he had started three days ago on Christmas Eve. He had lost an eye and won a Silver Star.
ON CHRISTMAS Eve, Private Joe Tatman of the 9th Armoured found himself with his squad, hiding in a hayloft outside Bastogne, well within German lines. They had been trapped there five days and had run out of food, "but we talked about Christmas and home, never giving up our hopes."
At 1600 the Germans found Tatman's group and forced it to surrender. A captain took charge. He had been a lawyer in New York. He explained that he had returned to his homeland to settle his father's estate and got caught up in the war. He took the prisoners into the kitchen of the farmhouse. His cooks were preparing for a Christmas party. He gave the GIs milk and doughnuts. He talked and joked about the war. He hoped it would end soon so that everyone could go home.
After they ate, the captain gave the Americans hot water, towels, and shaving materials. He told them to wash up as he was inviting them to join the Christmas party. The elderly Belgian farm couple had set a large, beautiful table in a decorated dining room, covered with all kinds of food and drinks, including meats. There were plates holding "all brands of American cigarettes." After eating, the captain offered a toast of good luck to the prisoners. He explained he and his men wanted to have the party because they realized that in the morning, Christmas Day, the GIs "would begin their journey to Hell."
Hell was a German POW camp. By late December they were growing rapidly, as the GIs captured in the first days of the Bulge began to come in. The trip from Belgium to the camps in eastern Germany was purgatory. Private Kurt Vonnegut of the 106th had a typical experience. After his group was forced to surrender, the Germans marched the POWs 60 miles to Limburg. There was no water, food, or sleep. In Limburg they were loaded into railway cars designed to hold forty men or eight horses. Private Vonnegut's car held sixty men. The cars were unventilated and unheated. There were no sanitary accommodations. Half the men had to stand so the other half could lie down to sleep. In every car there were any number of men with severe dysentery. There they stayed for four days.
Shortly after dark on Christmas Eve, in one of those cars, a man began singing. "He obviously had a trained voice; he was a superb tenor," Private George Zak recalled. He sang "Silent Night." Soon the others in the car took it up. It spread to the cars up and down the line. The German guards joined in the singing.
Suddenly the air-raid sirens went off. Soon bombs from the RAF were dropping all around the railroad yard. "Let us out!" the POWs screamed as they pounded at the locked sliding doors. "For Christ's sake, give us a chance!" But the guards had run off. The thinnest man in the car managed to squeeze through one of the vent windows and remove the wire locking the sliding door. The POWs poured out and ran up and down the track, opening the wire on the other cars. They saw a cavelike gully and ran to it. Some made it, but about 150 got killed or wounded.
When the all-clear sounded, the guards returned, rounded up the prisoners, and put them back in the cars. Slowly the excited talk died down as the adrenaline drained. Soon it was a silent night. "Hey," someone called out. "Hey, tenor, give us some more."
A voice from the other end of the car responded, "He ain't here. He got killed."
So it went on the Western Front during the Christmas season, 1944.
OUT IN THE English Channel the transport Leopoldville, a converted luxury liner, was headed towards Le Havre, bringing 2,223 replacements for the Battle of the Bulge. The officers were from the Royal Navy, the crew was Belgian, the passengers were Americans-a fine show of Allied unity. Sergeant Franklin Anderson and 150 others went up to the deck just before midnight to sing Christmas carols. There was a boom. A torpedo from a U-boat had hit amidships.
The ship shivered, then began to sink. The officers and crew jumped into the lifeboats-there were only fourteen of them-and took off, leaving the US soldiers to fend for themselves. Anderson managed to jump from Leopoldville to the deck of a destroyer that came alongside. Others who tried the same missed and were crushed as big waves pushed the two ships into each other. Still others drowned or succumbed to hypothermia. Altogether 802 GIs died in the incident, but not one British officer or Belgian seaman died. Bad show for Allied unity. The incident therefore was covered up. There was no investigation, no court-martial.
Built to carry 360 passengers, the Leopoldville held well over 2,000
troops when it sank in early winter, a time when the Channel is always rough and often stormy. The Allies were sending every available man across the Channel to the front on every available boat. To speed the process, ordinary precautions were neglected. There were insufficient life jackets, and no instructions on their use. With men packed into the very bowels of the ship, there were no lifeboat or abandon-ship drills. There were many other oversights, most caused by haste.
As a result, what should have been a minor loss was the equivalent of losing a full-strength rifle regiment, as the 1,400 or so survivors of the Leopoldville had to be sent to the hospital rather than the front line when they finally got to Cherbourg.
PATTON WOKE on Christmas morning, looked at the sky, and said to himself, "Lovely weather for killing Germans." But to his disappointment the spearhead for his thrust north to relieve Bastogne failed to break the siege that day.
The next morning the 4th Armoured moved out, with the 37th Tank Battalion (twenty Shermans strong), commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Creighton Abrams, in the lead. Jabos preceded them, laying bombs into the German lines only a couple of hundred metres ahead of the advancing tanks. Keep moving, Abrams ordered. They did, and at 1650, December 26, Lieutenant Charles Boggess drove the first vehicle from 4th Armoured into the lines of the 101st Airborne. He was followed by Captain William Dwight. "How are you, General?" Dwight asked General McAuliffe, who had driven out to the perimeter to greet him.
"Gee, I am mighty glad to see you," McAuliffe replied. With the siege of Bastogne broken, with Peiper and the others in retreat, the week after Christmas was relatively quiet on the front. But to the rear American trucks were rushing reinforcements and supplies forward. The US Army in ETO had been pounded badly in the second half of December, but it had recovered, held, and now was preparing the final offensive.