‘An ever famous American victory.’
Winston S. Churchill, 18 January 1945
NESTLING DEEP IN the Ardennes, overlooked by hills and woods, Hotton is an unremarkable Belgian town of fewer than 1,500 souls, sitting astride the River Ourthe.1 It is as close to the centre of the region as it is possible to be, and is really two towns. Divided by the water, it has a few shops, several cafés and its church, dedicated to St Pierre, which sits on the west bank, and is attended mostly by the farmers who make up the local community. This sleepy crossroads settlement, with its stone farmhouses and wooden barns, still bears a close resemblance to the 1940s town, although the number of modern structures, including the church, make it obvious that vicious fighting occurred here.
The road signs point you south to Rendeux and La Roche-en-Ardenne, or westwards, to Rochefort and Marche; beyond lies Dinant on the River Meuse, a mere twenty-four miles from Hotton.
Walk down the main street and you can picture the 5th Panzer Division racing through, on their way to the Meuse during the Saturday afternoon of 11 May 1940. Clattering down the cobbles from the east, young, keen and scenting victory, the black-clad tank men easily captured Hotton’s little bridge over the Ourthe, despite attempts by Belgian pioneers to destroy it. At the same hour three miles south, other panzers belonging to an obscure major-general named Erwin Rommel were splashing across a ford, upriver at Beffe.
At 08.30 a.m. on the winter solstice, Thursday, 21 December 1944, the panzers returned, following the same route, aiming again for Hotton’s bridge. This time it was men from 116th Panzer Division, called the ‘Windhund’ – Greyhound – which is how they saw themselves: fast, sleek and straining at the leash to reach the Meuse. The sturdy wooden two-way bridge at Hotton was new, put in place by US Army engineers to replace one the retreating Germans had destroyed three months earlier. Without warning, and accompanied by sudden mortar and machine-gun fire on their objective, the Greyhounds emerged from the morning mists to surprise a few men of the US 23rd and 51st Combat Engineers, armed with an anti-tank gun, a couple of 40mm Bofors guns from the 440th Anti-Aircraft Artillery Battalion and a few tanks of the 3rd Armored Division. None of these units knew each other or had worked together before. The Greyhounds’ morning assault, and another launched in the gloom of evening, narrowly failed to take the crossing from no more than a handful of defending American engineers, clerks and mechanics ‘armed with a smattering of bazookas and .50-inch calibre machine-guns’, crouching behind hasty barricades of overturned trucks.2
Ordinarily the defenders wouldn’t have stood a chance but they had been through the Normandy campaign and the Hedgerow War and were combat-hardened and determined, if few in number. They knew the value of their little bridge to the column of impatient panzers, and determined to hold out until reinforcements arrived. The Greyhounds were low on fuel too. Before reaching Hotton, they had captured stocks of food and enough gasoline for the whole division, abandoned by the US 7th Armored in nearby Samrée, but would soon run out again, hampering their ability to manoeuvre around the little town. The defenders noted many Germans wearing GI olive drab. ‘We could not tell the difference until we got close enough to see … Most of the Germans we killed and captured there were in American uniforms,’ recounted LeRoy Hanneman of the 3rd Armored Division.3
Private Lee J. Ishmael volunteered to man the little anti-tank gun, firing sixteen rounds in three minutes at a German tank almost on the bridge. One of his shots wedged between the turret and the hull, preventing the panzer’s turret from traversing and eventually it was destroyed.4Casualties on both sides were heavy, but when the Greyhounds withdrew after two days and headed south for La Roche, they left behind a graveyard of Panther tanks, and realised their hopes of a breakthrough to the River Meuse and beyond was a dream that had become a nightmare.5
Soon, other US units joined the fray, such as the 517th Parachute Infantry Regiment (who won a Presidential Unit Citation there), and the 84th ‘Railsplitters’ Division. They repelled attacks from the newly arrived 560th Volksgrenadiers, who took over the sector once the panzers had departed to find another crossing over the river. The GIs who stopped the Germans at Hotton were men like Indiana-born PFC Melvin E. Biddle of the 517th, ordered forward with his unit to rescue US soldiers trapped in the area. On 23 December, as company scout, he crawled through snow and bushes and spotted and killed three German snipers with his M-1 rifle.
Then Biddle, who had just turned twenty-one, came upon four successive machine-gun nests, which he silenced with gunfire and grenades, killing twelve. Hours later he stalled a German advance, despatching another thirteen grenadiers crossing a field, and brought down artillery fire on two tanks. However, when he found a fourteen-year-old boy in a German uniform roped to a tree – presumably so he couldn’t run away – he felt compassion and took him prisoner. In October 1945 the one-man army stood on the White House lawn, as President Harry S. Truman placed the blue ribbon of the Medal of Honor around his neck. ‘Then the president whispered into my ear, “People don’t believe me when I tell them I’d rather have one of these than be president’’,’ Biddle would recall later.6
Equally brave but less fortunate was Second Lieutenant James B. Lawson, Jr, of Sandy Springs, South Carolina. Two days after Biddle’s acts of valour, the twenty-one-year-old was leading his platoon of 290th Infantry, US 75th Infantry Division, in an attack through woods a few yards south-east of Hotton. His unit, which had left the USA exactly two months earlier and never seen action before, undertook three vicious assaults to clear La Roumière (Hill 87 on army maps), which dominates the surrounding road network and River Ourthe. In one of the attacks, Lawson was reported as wounded. His family and fiancée had an agonising wait until 5 February 1945 before learning that the young mechanical engineering graduate of Clemson University had died in a fire-fight, on Christmas Day.7
One of the soldiers advancing towards Hotton at the same time was Werner Klippel of the Wehrmacht’s 1128th Grenadier Regiment. Many of his mates were older garrison guards formerly based in Norway and now sent into combat with little training. Born at Mainz in January 1927, Werner was nineteen days short of his seventeenth birthday when his company hit the outskirts of the town, battling to punch through American lines after the panzer crews had left. Having lost all their motor transport due to aerial attack, Werner’s regiment had experienced a tiring few days marching up to the Front on foot through the snow and ice, with little food. Equally scarce was winter clothing: his unit had none. Within hours of reaching Hotton, Grenadier Klippel was caught in a shell blast and evacuated back to an aid post in Grandmenil, where he died, also on Christmas Day.8
Damage to the town was significant but not catastrophic; the main square is named after twenty-eight-year-old Philip E. Zulli, a Brooklyn-born-and-raised captain in the 36th Armored Infantry of 3rd Armored Division. He was talking to his friends Captain Anderson and Chaplain John Kraka, and reaching for a pack of cigarettes, when his half-track was hit by shells on the morning of 22 December, killing him instantly.9
With shrapnel peppering his church roof, Father Edmond Marquet finished Mass abruptly and handed one of his parishioners a strongbox containing the silver chalices. As in 1940, they were buried in a local garden, along with some of the town’s finest bottles of wine.
Nervous of spies and infiltrators, American military policemen and local gendarmes watched the trickle of refugees become a flood; all headed west, weighed down by their possessions, some in horse and cart carrying all they owned, others pushing wheelbarrows containing the elderly. Children, sensing the fear of the adults, cried; a man hauled his suitcase along the ice with ropes like a sleigh. Haunted by memories of Gestapo arrests and deportations to Germany for forced labour, they were devastated by the return of their traditional foes.
Hotton’s inhabitants had had no warning of the Germans’ arrival, and only just managed to tear down Allied flags and posters of Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin before their old adversaries saw them. Girls who had doted on GIs fled in panic when they recognised the field grey and guttural accents. Bursting into houses, hungry Wehrmacht troopers demanded information on the American defenders as they emptied kitchen cupboards and carried off sides of bacon. A farmer’s wife begged them to leave her family enough to eat over Christmas. ‘My men haven’t eaten in days. They come first’ was the unequivocal reply from a stern, helmeted officer. Civilian casualties were inevitable during the battle; on 21 December, Auguste Collard was killed by shrapnel while fetching straw for his family’s bedding in their cellar. Raymond Richel died on the 22nd, killed in his kitchen by a tank round, while the day after Alexandre Lobet was wounded by a mortar shell; despite being rushed by GIs to an aid station, he was beyond help.10
Casualties at Hotton would have been much higher had it not been for Allied fighters patrolling overhead – when they could fly. On Christmas Eve, First Lieutenant Charles J. Loring’s Thunderbolt was hit by anti-aircraft fire as he made a strafing attack during his fifty-sixth combat mission. His P-47D crashed outside Hotton, where he was captured by the Volksgrenadiers. Via hospital and an interrogation centre, Loring, just turned twenty-six, ended up in the Dulag Luft Prison Camp at Oberursel, near Frankfurt. He was liberated on 6 May 1945, two days before VE-Day, echoing the experience of nearly 24,000 US personnel captured in the Bulge.11
Texan Jack B. Warden, a twenty-one-year-old platoon leader with ‘B’ Company of the 36th Armored Infantry, was far luckier. Though young, he proved a natural soldier, commissioned in the field less than a month earlier. He arrived in Hotton with four tanks on 24 December and found himself defending Raymond Richel’s house, battling with German tank-hunting squads who were trying to infiltrate the ruins. Early next morning, at six, he heard shots from an adjacent barn where his men were on watch. He ran down to them: ‘They were being attacked by a calf and had to shoot it in self-defence,’ he recounted, eyes twinkling. ‘Someone else came up with three or four chickens, despatched for the same reason, and we had a nice Christmas Dinner.’12
After the war it took years for scrapmen to remove the abandoned armour, weapons and unexploded munitions. From 1945, the dead were gathered into their own national cemeteries: the Americans, like Philip Zulli, to the Henri-Chapelle Cemetery where 7,992 US soldiers lie in fifty-seven acres of neatly kept lawn and trees administered by the American Battle Monuments Commission. James Lawson’s parents wanted him home, and he lies in Sandy Spring Methodist Cemetery, Anderson County, South Carolina. Werner Klippel was taken not far away to the German military cemetery at Recogne, outside Bastogne, where he keeps company with 6,806 other soldiers. Auguste Collard, Raymond Richel and Alexandre Lobet were laid to rest within sight of their own homes. The war had even descended on Hotton’s graveyard, where headstones are still scarred by the bullets of that dark December.
Just outside the town, along Route N86, and down the appropriately named rue de la Libération, is a small military graveyard maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. In many ways it sums up Britain’s commitment to continental Europe during the Second World War. Among the 666 headstones, several commemorate men who fell in May 1940 but the vast majority date from January 1945, when units tangled with Volksgrenadiers in the last stages of the Battle of the Bulge. Most signify United Kingdom nationals, but others honour 88 Canadians, 41 Australians, 10 New Zealanders, a Belgian pilot serving in the RAF, a Pole and 20 who have the misfortune to be unidentified, but soldier no more.
This cemetery reminds the visitor that on New Year’s Day 1945 patrols of the British 6th Airborne and 53rd Welsh Divisions arrived in Hotton as reinforcements to help prevent any further breakthroughs. They saw themselves as a ‘backstop’ to the Bulge created in American lines, and the graves within include those of a forty-one-year-old brigadier, Gwynne Brian Sugden, then commanding 158 Infantry Brigade, who died when his armoured car skated on the icy roads and overturned in a nearby ditch. The Allied strategic bombing campaign casts its long shadow at Hotton, where six of the seven aircrew of an RAF bomber, five of them Australians, lie side by side. Their four-engined Halifax, returning from a raid on Essen, had collided with an RAF Lancaster; only the bomb aimer survived, the rest were gathered up and buried here.
There is an unlucky fifty-three-year-old war correspondent for the Daily Telegraph who possessed a gallantry medal from the First World War, and a Member of Parliament.13 Major Ronnie Cartland, MP, of the 53rd Worcestershire Yeomanry Anti-Tank Regiment, aged thirty-three, had actually been killed in 1940, but was one of Winston Churchill’s loyal circle of pre-war anti-appeasers and would no doubt have held high office after the war. Regarded as one of a great ‘lost generation’, he was mourned ever after by his elder sister, the world-renowned romantic novelist Barbara Cartland. Back in the town, there are now plaques to the ‘Dead of the War’, the 51st Combat Engineer Battalion and to Belgian parachutists of the SAS, as well as a Sherman ‘Firefly’ tank turret on a brick plinth commemorating where Grenadier, GI and Tommy traded shots amidst the back gardens and hedges of snow-blanketed Hotton.
Twice invaded and twice liberated during the Second World War, the town – which lies almost at the tip of the German ‘Bulge’ into US lines – represents the reality of the forty days of the Battle of the Bulge. The population were defenceless and learned to cope as best they could with every colour of uniform until the fighting was over. Much of the wider campaign, as in Hotton, revolved around shortages of fuel, rivers, bridges and road junctions. Some Germans donned GI clothing, often to stay warm but sometimes to deceive: in the inevitable confusion, there were issues of fratricide, on both sides. The fighting at various times took the lives of Belgians and Britons, Germans and Americans, civilians and soldiers, and underlines the fact that the Second World War in Europe was fought by coalitions. In May 1940, it was an Anglo-Franco-Belgian alliance resisting the Germans in this corner of Belgium. By December 1944, the Anglo-American coalition also included military units from Canada, France, Belgium, Holland, Norway, Luxembourg, Czechoslovakia, Poland and others, fighting under Eisenhower’s command. Without this rainbow alliance of committed nations, Western Europe would not have been freed as quickly, if at all.
None of this detracts from the achievement of US forces in the Ardennes campaign, to whom a grateful and admiring Winston Churchill paid tribute: ‘Care must be taken in telling our proud tale not to claim for the British Army an undue share of what is undoubtedly the greatest American battle of the war, and will, I believe, be regarded as an ever famous American victory.’ He went on to tell the House of Commons on 18 January 1945: ‘I have seen it suggested that the terrific battle which has been proceeding since the 16th of December on the American front is an Anglo-American battle. In fact, the United States troops have done almost all the fighting and have suffered almost all the losses. They have suffered losses almost equal to those on both sides in the battle of Gettysburg. Only one British Army corps has been engaged in this action. All the rest of the 30 or more divisions, which have been fighting continuously for the last month, are United States troops. The Americans have engaged 30 or 40 men for every one we have engaged, and they have lost 60 to 80 men for every one of ours.’
By January 1945, the war in Europe had become one of attrition which Germany was losing. As Churchill told his listeners, ‘Let the Germans dismiss from their minds any idea that any losses or set-back of the kind we have witnessed will turn us from our purpose. We shall go on to the end, however the storm may beat … the decisive breaking of the German offensive in the West is more likely to shorten this war,’ he concluded. ‘The Germans have made a violent and costly sortie which has been repulsed with heavy slaughter, and have expended in the endeavour forces which they cannot replace.’14
The Battle of the Bulge deprived the Third Reich of the ability to launch another major attack in the west or east again. Three years after the offensive, the US War Department issued a definitive list of the nearly 3,000 units which qualified for the Ardennes campaign credit, similar to a British battle honour. It ran to forty pages. They varied in size from military intelligence interpreter teams of a few people, small detachments and companies to twenty infantry, ten armoured and three airborne divisions, the Eighth and Ninth Army Air Forces and Bradley’s Twelfth Army Group.15 In terms of participation, losses and sheer professionalism, the Bulge was without doubt the greatest battle in American military history.