CELEBRATING CHRISTMAS WAS hard for both sides in the Bulge. In Bastogne, a packed Midnight Mass was held in the fifteenth-century, shell-damaged Église de Saint Pierre. Brigadier-General Tony McAuliffe preferred to drive out to Savy, north-west of town, in his jeep and attend a field service with his old friends in Edward L. Carmichael’s 321st Glider Airborne Artillery. Before he set off, McAuliffe heard German prisoners singing ‘Stille Nacht’ and ‘O Tannenbaum’ and stepped into their basement to wish them ‘Merry Christmas’.1 To boost morale, he also distributed this printed message to those under his command in Bastogne:
Merry Christmas! What’s merry about all this you ask? We’re fighting – it’s cold – we aren’t home. All true, but what has the proud Eagle Division accomplished with its worthy comrades of the 10th Armored Division, the 705th Tank Destroyer Battalion and all the rest? Just this: We have stopped cold everything that has been thrown at us from the north, east, south and west.2
McAuliffe was doing what great commanders do – inspiring by example and sharing in the pain. He knew that help was on its way but that most of his GIs, taking huge casualties, freezing in their foxholes, had very little awareness of the bigger picture. McAuliffe was also anxious to make sure they realised the importance of their sacrifices, and continued:
We have identifications from four German panzer divisions, two German infantry divisions and one German parachute division. These units, spearheading the last desperate German lunge, were heading straight west for key points when the Eagle Division was hurriedly ordered to stem the advance. How effectively this was done will be written in history; not alone in our Division’s glorious history but in world history. The Germans actually did surround us, their radios blared our doom. Allied troops are counterattacking in force. We continue to hold Bastogne. By holding Bastogne we assure the success of the Allied armies. We know that our Division commander, General Taylor, will say: ‘Well done!’ We are giving our country, and our loved ones at home, a worthy Christmas present and, being privileged to take part in this gallant feat of arms, are truly making for ourselves a Merry Christmas.3
Christmas carols echoed from a hundred candlelit cellars in Bastogne and from thousands more, scattered throughout the Ardennes, sung by civilians, prisoners and soldiers. Others had no such refuge. Many of the Golden Lions, Checkerboarders and Bloody Bucket GIs found themselves in ‘forty-by-eights’ (box cars, designed for forty soldiers or eight horses), cold and hungry, in a railway siding, heading for prison camps deep in Germany. Some would be bombed en route by the Royal Air Force. No one could remember who first started singing ‘Silent Night’, but soon the whole train took up the refrain, heard by German passengers waiting on a nearby platform for their own train. Moved, they persuaded the Wehrmacht guards to bring water for the thirsty, captive Americans.
Lionel P. Adda, with Company ‘D’, of the 393rd Infantry, was digging himself a new foxhole, when he was visited by two GIs: ‘One of them thrust a small, almost-cold turkey leg into my hand, the other handed me two slices of white bread and a couple of pieces of hard candy. This was my Christmas dinner.’ This story was repeated across the Bulge, as men shared whatever they had, including delicacies sent from home. Adda then realised, ‘As I crouched in my still fairly shallow hole and started to eat the turkey before it turned stone cold, “eighty-eight” shells began falling. Almost choking on that first bite, I realized that the Germans were watching those two poor soldiers and harassing them with artillery fire as they delivered our meals … It seemed almost criminal to me that the lives of soldiers could be jeopardised for such an almost meaningless gesture, perhaps so that some quartermaster could report to his superior that every man in his sector had turkey on Christmas Day.’4
Deep in the woods, fifty miles further north along the front, twelve-year-old Fritz Vincken reacted to the banging at the front of his family’s lonely cottage. He quickly blew out the candles and opened the door. He found two lost GIs shivering on the doorstep, clutching a third, wounded comrade. His mother immediately took charge. There could be no question of turning them away, whatever the penalties – even though the Vincken’s house was over the frontier, in Germany. Fritz was told to get some potatoes and Hermann, the family rooster they had been fattening for Christmas. As the meal took shape, there was more banging at the door. Other lost Americans, thought Fritz. He opened up to find four figures – dressed in shabby field grey – seeking shelter. Elisabeth Vincken also invited them in, wished them fröhliche Weihnachten – and offered to share the meal they could smell cooking. Then she warned them she had other ‘guests’, whom ‘you might not think of as friends’. The Unteroffizier in charge tensed immediately, ‘Amis?’ But before they could say another word, Frau Vincken warned them: ‘This is Christmas Eve. There’ll be no shooting here’. She went on, ‘One of them is wounded and fighting for his life and all are exhausted, like you – and hungry. Any of you could be my sons. Let’s forget about killing.’ Two of the Germans were mere boys – about sixteen – and the young Unteroffizier could not decide what to do, so Frau Vincken decided for him. ‘Put your rifles by the woodpile and come in, before you get any colder.’ Elisabeth then collected the GIs’ carbines also.
Fritz fetched more potatoes and his mother got on with preparing the meal. The Unteroffizier, who had been a medical student at Heidelberg, examined Herby, the wounded GI. Then Frau Vincken bade them all sit down to eat and said grace. ‘There were tears in her eyes,’ Fritz recalled later, ‘and as I looked around the table, I saw that the battle-weary soldiers were filled with emotion. Their thoughts seemed to be many, many miles away.’ As the tension melted, the Unteroffizier produced some wine. The GIs – who introduced themselves as Jim, Ralph and Herby – donated their instant coffee, the rest hunks of bread or other treats they had been saving. They somehow conversed in a mixture of German, French and English. After dinner they exchanged cigarettes and Elisabeth Vincken led them outside to look up at the Star of Bethlehem. Shortly afterwards they all fell asleep in their heavy coats on the Vincken’s floor, enjoying the warmth and trust they put in each other. On Christmas morning, they exchanged greetings and all helped make a stretcher for Herby. Retrieving their weapons, they shook hands and departed in opposite directions. Elisabeth Vincken never saw any of them again, but always said, ‘God was at our table that night’. In January 1996, Fritz – who had emigrated to America – traced one of the GIs, Ralph Blank, formerly with the 121st Infantry, and the two met shortly before their respective deaths.5 In 2002 this moving story was used as the basis of the movie Silent Night.6
After it had fallen to the Germans, St Vith was bombed heavily by the RAF and USAAF on Christmas Day. Many perished, including a GI caught in the grounds of what had been the American HQ, St Josef’s Convent. After the war, his remains were discovered near a lone tree in the precinct. Under a wooden cross marked ‘Soldat Amerikanisch’ were discovered charred bones, strands of hair, vestiges of clothing, remnants of GI shoes and a small tin holding two American dog tags, numbered 36824575, later matched to John R. McLeod. He was buried in the Ardennes American Cemetery.
To their great surprise, in 1949 the authorities in Washington, DC, discovered that McLeod had survived the war, and wrote formally to ask how his identity discs had ended up in St Vith. The former GI, with Company ‘B’, 393rd Infantry, of the 99th Division replied that he had been taken prisoner on 16 December, and two days later his dog tags and all identification papers were removed from him by a German officer. He thought they had been taken to be used by a German commando to get through American lines. Today the US authorities are still not sure of the nationality of the soldier found in St Vith and who lies in the cemetery. His headstone reads: ‘Here Rests in Honored Glory. A Comrade in Arms. Known but to God’.6
On 26 December, it was clear that the panzers of the Fifth and Sixth Armies had been halted short of their objectives along the River Meuse. In some sectors, such as the Elsenborn Ridge, there was hardly any progress at all. In the Adlerhorst, Hitler steadfastly refused to acknowledge the ruination of his dream. Sharing his fantasy world, and with the 2nd Panzer Division reporting their forward units almost on the Meuse, the OKW Kriegstagebuch (War Diary) suggested, ‘The envisioned thrust across the Meuse to the northwest still appears possible’. However, at Model’s headquarters, the Army Group ‘B’ chief of staff, Krebs, concluded, ‘Today a certain culminating point has been reached’. The fanatically loyal Krebs could see what most acolytes could not, which was that Herbstnebel had reached its high tide, well short of its aspirations. Even Jodl conceded, ‘We cannot force the Meuse’ – a fact that he had previously acknowledged in his covering note to Rundstedt, when issuing the final orders back on 1 November.
Yet the Führer – still keeping to his bizarre sleeping habits, generally retiring at 04.00 a.m. and rising at noon – having staked everything on this attempt, was not willing to give up. ‘We have had unexpected setbacks – because my plan was not followed to the letter,’ he ranted. ‘We stand to lose everything. If the other side announces one day, “We’ve had enough!” No harm will come to them. If America says, “Enough! Stop! No more American boys to Europe!” It won’t hurt them. New York remains New York. Nothing will change. But if we say, “We’ve had enough, we’re packing up”, then Germany will cease to exist.’ He was echoing a theme he had first proposed in Mein Kampf, that Germany would either become a world power or cease to exist.7
At this stage, Generaloberst Heinz Guderian appeared at the Adlerhorst to warn that the Eastern Front would collapse when the Soviets invaded, an event he expected on a daily basis. Ignoring him completely, Hitler ordered Bastogne, whose siege had already been lifted that very day by Creighton Abrams’ tanks, to be captured ‘at all costs’, though this no longer had any tactical relevance to the offensive. Meanwhile, from 21 December he had also been planning a further attack along the front, into Alsace, which duly materialised on 1 January as Operation Nordwind.
Even in such moments of crisis, Hitler was often able to carry his court with him on his surreal journey. He would go on to rave, ‘If the Vaterland continues to do its duty and does still more; if the soldier at the front takes the valiant Vaterland as an example and stakes his life for his native land, then the whole world will be shattered in its assault against us. If the front and the Vaterland are jointly determined to destroy those who act like cowards or those who sabotage the fight, then they will save the nation. At the end of this struggle, a German victory must come and we will enjoy our proud good fortune. When this war comes to an end, we shall put victory into the hands of a young generation. This youth is the most precious thing that Germany possesses. It will be an example for all generations to come.’8
Imbued with this sort of spirit, one of his most loyal servants, Oberst Otto Remer and his Führer-Begleit-Brigade arrived in the Bastogne sector on 27 December and attacked immediately, and without prior reconnaissance. Their over-hasty attempt was disorganised and duly halted. The next day witnessed another attack, in an awful snowstorm, coordinated by the German XXXIX Corps of Generalleutnant Karl Decker. He used Remer’s Brigade, the 115th Regiment (of the 15th Panzergrenadier Division), 901st Panzergrenadier Regiment (left behind by Bayerlein’s Panzer Lehr), plus Kokott’s 26th Volksgrenadier Division. Some of Kokott’s grenadiers captured on 1 January complained that though not short of ammunition, ‘their detachment had not been issued food for several days’.9 Decker’s assault failed, running up against the defenders, now reinforced by Brigadier-General Harrold’s CCA of the 9th Armored Division, sent straight from their successful defence of the front further south.
Although a slim supply corridor was operating into Bastogne, the fighting around the perimeter remained deadly. Dr Henry Hills was a surgeon who landed by glider outside the town on 26 December; three of his colleagues were killed by German fire even before they landed. Hills went straight into a fifty-hour session of non-stop operations on the 400 serious cases that had accumulated – Jack Prior was working on them too. There were so few anaesthetists that Hills found himself obliged to teach a cook how to administer the required dose of sodium pentothal in order for him to set a facture. The cook beamed with pride, ‘Now I’ve done everything in this army’.10
On 28 December, ever the optimist, Hitler warmed to the theme of attacking Alsace, stating that his new undertaking ‘will automatically bring about the collapse of the threat to the left flank of our offensive in the Ardennes. We will then actually have knocked out half the enemy forces on the Western Front. Then we will see what happens. Then there will be 45 additional German divisions and I do not believe that in the long run he [Eisenhower] can stand up to those. We will yet be masters of our fate.’11 To counter Hitler’s forty-five ‘ghost’ divisions (which, in reality, no longer existed), the Allies were channelling all available formations to the Bulge.
The US 6th Armored, with the 35th, 87th and 90th Infantry Divisions, were deployed north from Patton’s Third Army. The 83rd Infantry came south from Simpson’s Ninth Army, and the 11th Armored and 17th Airborne, both newly arrived in Europe, were also hurried to the Ardennes. Montgomery had Horrocks’ XXX Corps send the British 6th Airborne, 53rd Welsh, 43rd Wessex and 51st Highland Divisions, plus two armoured brigades (six battalions of tanks) to guard the north bank of the River Meuse between Givet and Liège. The field marshal, whom Eisenhower had charged on 20 December with commanding the northern half of the Bulge (the inter-army group boundary ran from five miles south of St Vith to Givet, on the Meuse), knew that Ultra decrypts were once again producing vital intelligence. His, and Patton’s, complete faith in Ultra and Bletchley’s SLU officers was in contrast to Brigadier-General Sibert at Twelfth Army Group and Dickson at US First Army. The latter would move their headquarters twice in the middle of the campaign, on 18 and 22 December, with all the disruptions to command and control that entailed.
Since the Germans had broken their radio silence, code-breakers at Bletchley Park knew which signals to decipher. They managed to unravel the evening situation reports of Brandenberger’s Seventh Army, Sepp Dietrich’s Sixth Panzer and Model’s Army Group ‘B’ with delays of no more than six to twelve hours. Urgent signals bearing tactical information were sometimes cracked in three hours. Apart from the surprise of Bodenplatte on 1 January, most Luftwaffe operational and reconnaissance orders for the coming twenty-four hours were also decrypted in advance, Bletchley Park giving anything related to the Ardennes their maximum effort – in obvious atonement for their earlier failure to predict the offensive. Although Ultra was not decisive in the eventual Ardennes victory, it gave the cautious Montgomery – much criticised for delaying the start of his own counter-offensive – an enormous advantage, for he knew he could afford to wait.12
On the 29th, Patton’s attempt to expand the corridor into Bastogne, using Hugh J. Gaffey’s 4th Armored and the 35th Infantry Divisions, initially stalled when it encountered two battalions from Heilmann’s 15th Fallschirmjäger Regiment, exhausted but still vicious. Gaffey was one of Patton’s most trusted officers, having served as Third Army chief of staff until taking over the Fourth. Captain John Kerner, the surgeon with the 35th Division whom we met earlier, remembered the attack. He had just prepared a bunch of frostbite cases for evacuation when a full colonel came by to check on the wounded. He asked Kerner, ‘What’s wrong with these men?’ When told, he ordered, ‘Warm them up and send them back to duty. I need every man I can get.’ Kerner countered, ‘I’m sorry, sir. If these men go back to duty, there is a good chance they will lose a hand or a foot.’ The colonel was unmoved: ‘I’m ordering you to send these men back to duty.’ Kerner refused, ‘I’m sorry, sir, I can’t do that.’ The colonel was furious, ‘I’ll recommend you face a court-martial.’ Nothing more was heard, the men were evacuated and received Purple Hearts.13
Undeterred and responding to a request for help with the wounded in Bastogne, Kerner then loaded a Sherman with medical supplies and scrambled aboard the outside with two NCOs. ‘They put their other tanks in a position to protect us, one on either side of the supply tank onto which we climbed and got as low as possible, using the gear fastened to it as cover,’ he remembered. The tankers carried their bedrolls, extra clothing and spare tracks on the outside of their vehicles. ‘Much to our surprise, the commander had found a concealed route into Bastogne, and we encountered minimal hostile fire – what little there was had an overwhelming response from our group which consisted of four tanks, a tank destroyer and a jeep containing the scouts who had found the route.’14
On 30 December, Patton tried another assault to ease the situation around Bastogne with the 11th Armored and 87th Infantry Divisions, but they ran straight into Panzer Lehr and the 26th Volksgrenadiers, who were also attacking, west of town. At the same time, elements of the Leibstandarte and the newly arrived 167th Volksgrenadier Division, under Generalmajor Harald Schultz, hit positions of the US 35th and 26th Divisions. The horse-drawn 167th had only arrived on 28 December from Slovakia, where it had been formed. Captured grenadiers told their US interrogators they had had to fight Slovak partisans during their training. The 167th then travelled west by rail over seven days, moving at night for fear of Allied air attacks. They had originally been issued with First World War-vintage horse-drawn 75mm cannon, but these had been replaced by 81mm mortars. They were ordered where possible to capture American mortars of the same calibre, which were regarded as superior weapons.15
In their first battle, the 167th were massacred by Allied artillery and incessant air attacks, and the Leibstandarte lost fifty-five tanks and assault guns. Despite the best efforts of their tank workshops, the panzer units around Bastogne had become seriously depleted. By 1 January, the Führer-Begleit-Brigade possessed fifty-one armoured vehicles, the 3rd and 15th Panzergrenadier Divisions had forty-one and forty-eight respectively, the Leibstandarte reported fifty-eight and the 9th Panzer Division was operating with seventy-five. However, even though Eisenhower had now committed thirty-eight US divisions to the Ardennes, his formations were suffering too.
In the north, at this stage, Gerow’s V Corps held excellent defensive positions at Elsenborn and could absorb all the blows Dietrich was able to give. To the west of Gerow, Ridgway’s XVIII Airborne Corps had welcomed Hasbrouck’s 7th Armored Division out of St Vith and into its fold, but were confronted with more open, challenging terrain to defend. They were blessed with the overall advantage of the Germans’ fuel shortage, which – with the destruction of bridges – had brought Peiper’s advance to an end. Beyond Ridgway lay Collins’ VII Corps, designated as Monty’s counter-thrust formation, which had blocked the 2nd Panzer Division’s desperate thrust towards the Meuse.
In the west, forming a stop-gap, Brian Horrocks’ British XXX Corps took over patrolling the far bank of the River Meuse and the demolition guards of every bridge. In the south, Middleton’s VIII Corps had come under Patton’s command on 20 December. Since then they had resisted all attempts to pinch out the Bastogne garrison. While Middleton stood firm, Major-General John B. Millikin’s III Corps coordinated Patton’s counter-attack towards Bastogne, clearing terrain as it went. To Millikin’s east, Major-General Manton S. Eddy’s XII Corps took over the defending units around Luxembourg and in the south of the Bulge, gradually winkling Brandenberger’s Seventh Army out of its footholds.
At the tip of the Bulge, there was much confusion as to who occupied which village, as Captain Guy Radmore of the British 6th Airborne Division nearly found to his cost. Having just arrived in the Ardennes on New Year’s Eve, ‘after a difficult drive through cold, fog and snow’, he and a colleague decided to celebrate, and went to the Château Royal d’Ardennes, a luxury country hotel (still in business), near the Meuse and midway between Dinant and Givet. ‘We arrived and, to our astonishment, were greeted by a receptionist and a head waiter in a tail coat. Having organised a bath and a bottle of wine, we enquired as to how long ago the Germans had left, and were amazed to be told, “They left through the garden about ten minutes ago”.’16
On 3 January, under Montgomery’s guidance, Hodges’ First Army attacked from the north and Patton’s Third – under Bradley – continued to respond from the south. The two armies were at this stage about twenty-five miles apart. Eisenhower and Patton had been waiting impatiently since New Year’s Day for the northern move, spearheaded by Collins’ VII Corps, then comprising the US 2nd and 3rd Armored and 83rd and 84th Infantry Divisions. The call was Monty’s, but he ensured that Collins (whom he requested specifically, as the most aggressive US corps commander) was supported by generous quantities of artillery and air support.
Prior to this, Monty had actually required Ridgway’s XVIII Airborne Corps to draw back a little, shortening the northern perimeter of the Bulge, something that annoyed Gavin’s 82nd Airborne Division, who – as we’ve seen – were reluctant to yield terrain they’d paid with blood to win. There was good military logic to the slight withdrawal, as Gavin later admitted, but it came at a cost. German troops in the area, including Mohnke’s Leibstandarte, were able to occupy a few more villages and vent their frustrations on the inhabitants. The result was more civilians put to death, homes burned and livelihoods destroyed.
The Germans by this stage had very little strength left with which to oppose Collins’ VII Corps attack. Their divisions had been written down so much that the 2nd SS Das Reich was only 6,000 strong, and the 560th Volksgrenadiers 2,500. Prisoners taken from the 560th at this time revealed that battalion strengths were down to around 150 men, though knew little of their unit. All were former members of the Luftwaffe, transferred to the infantry in November, and had arrived at the front as replacements only three days earlier.17
Otto Skorzeny wrote to a fellow officer in the 9th SS bemoaning the Ukrainian replacements reaching the SS, ‘who do not even speak German. There is a shortage of everything, but here it is the men that count. I have learnt what it means, for instance, to attack without heavy weapons, because there is no transport to bring forward mortars and anti-tank guns. We have to lie out on frozen ground, a target for the Jabos … If only we had just one division here, trained and equipped and with the élan we both knew in 1939, so long ago … Heil Hitler!’18
Because Army Group ‘B’ had focused, as Hitler ordered, on Bastogne, Monty’s northern thrust came as a surprise. The Germans, as well as Patton, Gerow of V Corps and Hodges at First Army, had expected an attack further east, aimed at the base of the Bulge, enveloping all the Herbstnebel troops, but Monty chose instead to flatten and push the Bulge back, working from west to east. He was worried – and with some justification – that a combination of hardened German units and the appalling wintry conditions might prove the undoing of his counter-thrust, for the weather had begun to deteriorate again and slowed US advances to less than a mile a day.
RAF Wing Commander Desmond Scott, usually in charge of a wing of RAF Typhoons, ground attack fighters, wrote of driving his jeep through the region to reconnoitre a new airbase, and described conditions with his pilot’s eye: ‘Sleet was falling, the roads were icy, and to add to the danger, we kept running into masses of super cooled fog. As soon as this fog hit anything it turned to “Rhine [i.e. very thick] ice”, with which no windscreen wiper can cope. The glass became an ice shield and in order to stay on the road and keep going, we drove with our heads out of the side of the Jeep. Several times we slid off the road and had to be dragged back on, sometimes by a passing truck, once by a Sherman tank.’19 This was the time when Brigadier Sugden of 158th Brigade died when his scout car skidded and overturned.20
Soon, Ridgway’s XVIII Airborne Corps joined in the attack, and on 7 January the key road junction, the Baraque de Fraiture (Parker’s Crossroads) was retaken. However, the Germans could still give a good account of themselves and Monty’s anxieties proved justified on the same day, when the US 551st Parachute Infantry Battalion – an independent airborne unit – tangled with Generalmajor Friedrich Kittel’s 62nd Volksgrenadier Division. Having fought their way up from southern France, the paratroopers had eventually arrived in Werbomont on 21 December 1944, with a strength of 643 officers and men. A near-continuous series of assaults had whittled their numbers down to 250 men by 7 January.
That day they attacked and took the village of Rochelinval (five miles downriver from Trois-Ponts) from an entire Volksgrenadier regiment, but lost more than one hundred in the snows before the village, including their CO, Lieutenant-Colonel Wood G. Joerg. Just fourteen officers and ninety-six men remained of the original 643. Since the 551st were a single-battalion entity and had no paratrooper replacements available, they were absorbed into Gavin’s 82nd Airborne Division. With the survivors scattered and the battalion’s records lost, nothing of the 551st’s history was known until its veterans sought recognition for their sacrifices in the 1990s. The battalion was belatedly awarded a Presidential Unit Citation in 2001 and several plaques have recently been dedicated to the 551st in Rochelinval, where a visit provides a sobering study of a gruelling hand-to-hand battalion action.21
Popular history has the German attacks peaking at Christmas and the campaign slowly subsiding during the ensuing month. In fact, the battles around Bastogne between Christmas and the New Year were some of the most damaging to both sides. Even the unleashing of the Allied counter-thrust from 3 January was not easy, for the Americans (and a few of their British compatriots) were also fighting plunging temperatures, which were the lowest of the entire campaign. German and US vehicular movement was slow, their infantry were soon exhausted wading through the two- or three-foot snowdrifts, and the wounded rarely survived, if left unattended for more than fifteen minutes.
The weather story of the Bulge was not a simple one of continuous fog and snow, as is often portrayed. Although it had been snowing in late November, covering the higher parts of the Ardennes and Eifel regions – which impeded the concentration of attacking units, but hid them also – by 16 December most of the snow had disappeared. German propaganda film footage bears this out. The US 17th Field Artillery Observation Battalion, on the northern shoulder, noted the following temperatures on 16 December: at 01.40 a.m., 27 degrees Fahrenheit (–3°C); 11.40 a.m., 34 degrees (1°C); and at 11.35 p.m., 38 degrees (3°C). This was miserable weather for troops living in the open.22
The Ardennes has a quirky microclimate and conditions can vary rapidly over a few miles. Contrary to popular belief, not every day of the 1944–45 campaign witnessed snow, and the weather gods produced an unpredictable mixture of blizzards, fog, ice and rain, which hampered the attackers as much as the defenders. The very conditions Hitler sought to ground the Allied air forces played havoc with his own logistics, fatally delaying the arrival of fuel and ammunition. (NARA)
From Null-Tag until 20 December, the weather was generally damp and misty. Although this cloaked the Germans, it also momentarily worked against them: the slight thaw slowed the panzers and sudden openings in the thick fog occasionally revealed the attackers in dramatic fashion, as we saw at Noville. On 21–22 December, competing weather fronts then froze the higher ground, on the Elsenborn Ridge and elsewhere, leaving the lower highways slippery and muddy, as few were paved. Conditions were briefly an unpredictable mixture of snow, blizzards, fog and rain, all of which hampered the Fifth and Sixth Armies and their supply networks.
Snow brought German logistics traffic through the Eifel to a standstill, where there was no grit and few snowploughs. Snow fences were torn down by cold troops scrounging for firewood. Speer’s civil engineers who might have solved these mobility problems were all employed further westwards at the front. By the time snowploughs reached the vital supply routes, the skies had cleared sufficiently for Allied fighters to pounce on them. Volksgrenadier Gefreiter Otto Gunkel told me how sparse his rations had become due to the supply shortages. When he entered a farmhouse containing American rations in early January, he found three cans: one of beans, another of cherries and a third of macaroni, emptied them into an abandoned GI helmet and ate the mess with his fingers. He rounded off his repast with a captured chocolate bar and lit up a Lucky Strike. ‘Best meal I’d eaten for years,’ he thought.23
Between 23 and 27 December, a high-pressure system brought cold, dry winds from the east, and the skies became crystal-clear for Allied aircraft, but temperatures on the ground dropped very low indeed, freezing the earth to stone and turning roads to glass. On the 27th, the 17th Artillery noted lower figures than before: 01.45 a.m., 14 degrees Fahrenheit (–10°C); 1.50 p.m., 25 degrees (–4°C); and at 11.40 p.m., 17 degrees (–8°C). As the temperature rose slightly around 29 December, arctic air from Scandinavia brought heavy snow, blizzards and greatly reduced visibility at ground level. GI ‘Mac’ McMurdie of the 99th Division remembered, ‘Then it started snowing, snowing, snowing, until it was hip deep in every spot. All night long we took turns digging the snow out of the hole. We would sweat while working then just about freeze when we stopped. And it was no use trying to put on our greatcoats. They had all been frozen solid and were useless.’24 The snow settled thickly on the frozen ground, creating treacherous conditions for man and vehicle – these were the conditions Desmond Scott encountered, and which killed Brigadier Sugden.
John Davis, a scout with the 424th Infantry, who somehow had escaped the Golden Lions’ bruising encounters with the Wehrmacht on 17–21 December, recalled the day the cold got too extreme. He came across a soldier’s corpse wrapped in a blanket. ‘I kept going. Taking that blanket would have violated military etiquette, not to mention my own personal code of right and wrong. I walked another ten feet. Then I retraced my steps … “Sorry, buddy,” I whispered, “but I need this more than you do.” A deep sense of shame spread through me, but I kept the blanket and didn’t look back.’25
On New Year’s Day, 1945, First Lieutenant Kendall M. Ogilvie of the 17th Artillery recorded even lower temperatures: 03.40 a.m., 20 degrees Fahrenheit (–7°C); 11.45 a.m., 23 degrees (–5°C); while at 9.40 p.m., 13 degrees (–11°C).26 These were conditions that Russian Front veterans would recognise, and both sides realised they greatly reduced the effectiveness of armoured troops, transportation and artillery units, never mind the infantry. Tanker J. Ted Hartman observed, ‘never did I imagine at age nineteen I would be driving a tank in battle’, but the thrill soon wore off. Moving through the Ardennes with the US 11th Armored Division, he declared, ‘The weather was freezing and those tanks were cold, cold.’ He remembered the ‘frost forming over the interior of the thick steel walls’ of his tank, and his crew suffering from frostbite and trench foot inside their vehicles.27
‘You couldn’t touch the tanks or your hands stuck to the metal,’ agreed a crewman with the 761st Tank Battalion, an African American armoured unit known as the ‘Black Panthers’. George ‘E.G.’ McConnell still remembered Patton’s speech of welcome to his battalion. ‘I would never have asked for you if you weren’t good. I have nothing but the best in my Army,’ thundered ‘Old Blood and Guts’, Third Army’s affectionate nickname for their commander. ‘I don’t care what color you are as long as you go up there and kill those Kraut sonsofbitches. Everyone has their eyes on you and is expecting great things from you … Don’t let them down, and damn you, don’t let me down! They say it is patriotic to die for your country. Well, let’s see how many patriots we can make out of those German sonsofbitches.’ They all loved it, but the Bulge was less agreeable. ‘The tracks were real quiet because of the snow. Beautiful country, but you couldn’t really appreciate the beauty,’ observed McConnell, ‘every tree, snow-bank, could be deadly. But, boy was it cold, like living in a steel refrigerator turned to maximum.’28
Overall, figures recorded during Herbstnebel ranged from 43 degrees Fahrenheit (6°C), recorded on 19 December, to minus 7 degrees Fahrenheit (–22°C), noted at Wiltz on 1 January, with a gradual decline in average daily temperatures throughout the period. The unusually poor weather was stressed by SHAEF to journalists and reflected in the newspaper headlines. ‘Yank Troops, Tanks Advance Two Miles Through 4-Foot Snow’, read the Baltimore News-Post on 9 January.29 The temperatures were much lower than the historic norm for December–January, when the thermometer generally hovers between 33 and 35 degrees Fahrenheit (1 and 2 °C). However, even today, a visitor to the Ardennes may be struck by the region’s quirky microclimate: as anyone who has followed a race at the Spa-Francorchamps circuit (home to the Belgian Grand Prix) will remember, the start line can be bathed in brilliant sunshine, but torrential rain can be drenching the drivers only a short distance away.
Aware of the danger of losing his remaining panzers, Hitler authorised Model to withdraw some units on 8 January, followed by the whole of I and II SS Panzer Corps, plus the Führer-Begleit-Brigade – all his personal favourites – on the 9th. The same day, Patton began a drive against Manteuffel’s Fifth Army in two feet of snow, when the mercury registered –6° Fahrenheit (–21°C), but his opponents gave ground only grudgingly – they were fighting to keep their escape routes open, not for their Vaterland. With morale, as well as the temperatures, plummeting, the Fifth and Sixth Panzer Armies extricated themselves from the Allied jaws as best they could, but the lack of fuel and rations, as well as hostile aircraft, hampered their efforts besides the snow – which served only to increase their fuel consumption.
On 11 January a link-up was made between British troops moving from the west and GIs advancing from the north, when the 1st Black Watch of Horrocks’ XXX Corps entered La Roche, encountering Company ‘C’ of the 635th Tank Destroyer Battalion, attached to the US 4th Cavalry Group. One of the Scotsmen, Harris McAllister, remembered, ‘we crossed over the wrecked Ourthe River bridge and met American soldiers in their armoured car. We sat down, round a fire of petrol and sand in a bucket, and shared coffee with them. Then a photographer with a reporter arrived in a jeep and we were made to rush down a street from opposite ends, meet and shake hands in the middle.’ The posed photo made headline news, and is reproduced on a marble plaque at the same spot, the corner of rue de la Gare and Route de Cielle in La Roche, today.30 Monty’s news management was quick off the mark, for by 12 January some papers were already running the story ‘Montgomery’s Men Capture Laroche’ – which was news to the GIs they had met there, and others throughout the Bulge who were unaware of any British presence in what was principally an American campaign.31
If there were any lingering hopes in the Adlerhorst about the continued viability of Herbstnebel, they were dashed on 12 January when the Soviets launched their New Year’s offensive, as Guderian had warned. We have noted how the original Ardennes plan, as argued by Hitler, had been to secure victory in the west, then transfer those victorious units back east to meet the Russians. The result was the worst of all possible worlds. On 15 January, Rundstedt received permission to withdraw his forces back to Cherain, near Houffalize, which was immediately broadcast in the following terms: ‘A Berlin military spokesman announced to-day that the German counter-offensive was over. “The task given to Field Marshal Model’s armies has been fulfilled,” he said. “The aim of the German offensive was not so much to gain ground as to reduce pressure on other parts of the front. The German Command decided to attack in order to force the Allies to cease their offensive on the Roer and in the Saar and Alsace. This has happened, and the Germans have once more gained time.”’ Inevitably, western newspapers interpreted this in terms of: ‘Von Rundstedt’s Bulge Caving In. Berlin Admits Drive is Over’, ‘Bulge: Berlin Admits Defeat’ or ‘Germans Flee Bulge’.32
The previous day the two American armies in the Bulge had made contact for the first time. Beneath the battlements of the eleventh-century castle in La Roche (earlier liberated by the Black Watch), soldiers of the 24th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron, from Collins’ VII Corps, met paratroopers of the 507th Parachute Infantry of the 17th Airborne Division, a newly committed formation of Patton’s Third Army. Two days later, at 09.05 a.m., the jaws snapped shut at Houffalize, when Task Force Green of Patton’s 11th Armored Division encountered the 41st Armored Infantry of Collins’ Second Armored Division advancing from the north. Plaques located just out of town commemorate the event.
The American advance continued, taking St Vith on the 23rd – recaptured, appropriately, by Hasbrouck’s Seventh Armored Division, which had defended it a month earlier. Only three houses remained habitable. By the end of the month, almost every German gain had been eliminated. Meanwhile the Führer had quit the Adlerhorst at 6.00 p.m. on 15 January (proof, if ever it was needed, that the offensive was over), boarded his personal train, the ‘Brandenburg’, and by ten o’clock the following morning was back in Berlin. Thereafter he retreated to the Reichskanzlei and his Führerbunker beneath.
Allied casualties included 8,607 dead, 21,144 missing and 47,139 wounded, totalling 76,890, to which must be added about 20,000 non-battle casualties (frostbite, trench foot and the like), plus aircrew losses. The cost to the Germans remains difficult to prove conclusively, and at best, is an estimate based on the casualty lists compiled every ten days by OKH, the ‘Personelle blutige Verluste des Feldherres’. This indicated 10,749 dead, 22,487 missing or captured and 34,225 wounded for the 10 December–30 January period, totalling 67,261. (OKW later released far higher figures of 15,652 killed, 27,582 missing or captured and 41,600 wounded, a total of 84,834.)33 The true figure may lie between the two, making German and American casualties about even. However, in terms of matériel losses, very little of Hitler’s divisions remained, compared with their strengths of twenty-four days earlier.34 Eisenhower noted the loss of 733 Allied tanks, of which Berlin claimed to have captured ninety-one. Overall the Wehrmacht lost about 600 irreplaceable panzers in Herbstnebel: the 12th SS-Hitlerjudgend could muster only twenty-six tanks and assault guns, and its battalions averaged only 120 men. They suffered 9,870 men killed, wounded and captured, including 328 officers and 1,698 NCOs. If the elite, fanatical divisions were being hammered on such a scale, then this, if nothing else, surely underlined the end of the Reich.35