The Sixth Panzer Army attacks the northern shoulder of the “Bulge,” 16–23 December 1944. (Positions approximate)
The optimistic predictions of the war being over by Christmas lay dead and frozen in the snow-shrouded fields of Western Europe and coagulating on the blood-soaked sands of tropical isles and atolls. The far-flung, fortified islands of Kwajalein, Truk, Hollandia, Saipan, Guam, Peleliu, and Leyte had all fallen to the Americans in 1944, shortening the road to Tokyo each day. Yet the fanatical Japanese were still holding out on many more islands, prepared to fight to the last man. And no matter how optimistically the newsreels and newspapers and magazine and radio commentators spun the facts, there seemed to be no end in sight to the awful carnage.
In Europe, too, there was little reason to hope that Hitler’s Third Reich might suddenly collapse, as had Kaiser Wilhelm’s regime in November 1918; each mile driven into Germany by the Allies was met with greater and greater resistance, like a fist being pushed into fast-setting concrete. Even an attempt on the Führer’s life by rebel Nazi officers in July had been botched; nothing and no one seemed able to stop the hate-filled Austrian ex-corporal who had started the world’s descent into madness.
As America’s fourth Christmas season since the United States entered the war commenced, there was an oppressive sense that the war might drag on indefinitely. In the U.S., the holiday was being celebrated in subdued fashion. Instead of being joyous, the hearts in many families were heavy, filled either with fear or grief.While some servicemen were safe at home, either because they had been wounded in battle; had finished their tour of duty; or because they were awaiting deployment overseas (the official draft ceiling had just been raised to age twenty-six), millions of husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons were gone, their absence symbolized by a simple, empty stocking tacked to the mantel of the family fireplace. Millions of families, to be sure, had sent packages containing millions of Christmas presents to their loved ones overseas, and the military postal system struggled mightily to assure that the packages would reach the soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen, no matter how remote or dangerous the address. So what if the cakes and cookies arrived crushed beyond recognition or if, like the dainty napkins, shoe whitening, and spats Eddie Steeg had received from home in July, they were incongruous, useless, and inappropriate in a war zone? The fact that they were remembered at all heartened even the most battle-hardened, gore-stained veterans.
Back home, Americans still intently kept abreast of developments on the battle fronts, especially where their loved ones were serving. Their hearts also ached for the Londoners who were again feeling the club of Hitler’s wrath, this time in the form of huge V-2 rockets that plunged from the sky without warning and did terrible damage.
Americans craved information, and they pored over newspapers and magazines, searching for any scrap of news that might be a harbinger of victory, or anything that would put words to the inexpressible feelings they held inside. Advertising captured the heartbreak of the season. An ad from the automaker Nash showed a wistful GI and the headline, “When I Go Home . . . .”The copy was weighted with the same yearning that filled virtually every homesick serviceman at Christmastime: “The guns fade down. And it seems to me I hear a dog’s sharp bark, and a girl’s voice, and the shrill of my own clear whistle. And the next thing I know, I’m over the gate and out of the war and it’s Christmas again and I’m home. And then, I’m walking into a room with the biggest and brightest tree in the world. . . . The music stops and the carols are stilled and the bombers come up and the fighters scream against the surfbeat of the guns and I’m back where there’s still a war to be won. But I know when I go home, I’ll go home sure that no kids of mine will ever spend their Christmases in jungles, in foxholes, or on beachheads. . . .”
Unfortunately, there would be numerous Christmases ahead when the sons of World War II veterans would be spending their Christmases in jungles, in foxholes, and on beachheads. And there were plenty of soldiers in this war, too, just inside Germany’s vestibule, that were hunkered down in snow-filled holes; or taking cover in the scant shelter of a half-demolished building that was once somebody’s home or shop; or trying to warm their hands over a jeep’s manifold or a tank’s exhaust, while longing for home and girls and decorated trees and the warmth of a real bed, without worrying about an incoming artillery round or a dive-bomber’s screaming attack or a sniper’s bullet.
Having taken all its objectives, the weary 1st Infantry Division was finally pulled off the line on 11 December and given a welcome relief by the 9th Infantry Division; three days later, General Huebner was relieved of command and replaced by his crusty Division Artillery commander, Clift Andrus. By then, Huebner was almost as beloved by his men as Terry Allen had been. Huebner was “bumped upstairs” to replace Leonard T. Gerow as V Corps commander when Gerow was promoted to command the newly created Fifteenth Army. Willard Wyman was also transferred out, and given the 71st Infantry Division to command; Colonel George A. Taylor, C.O. of the 16th Infantry, became the assistant division commander.
Andrus, born at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, in 1880 into a military family, had graduated from Cornell University in 1912, then was commissioned a second lieutenant of artillery. In Andrus, who had been head of “Div Arty” since before the North Africa campaign, and Taylor, the men of the 1st knew they had two aggressive and capable leaders; the Big Red One’s drive toward Berlin, it was felt, would not miss a beat.
As tough as the battles for Aachen and the Hürtgen Forest had been, they were soon eclipsed by a battle of even greater proportions—the so-called “Battle of the Bulge.” In his last-gasp effort to turn the tide of war in his favor, Hitler gambled everything he had in the west with an all-out blitz, code-named Wacht am Rhein (“Watch on the Rhein”), designed to crash through American lines, capture the Belgian port of Antwerp, into which hundreds of thousands of tons of Allied supplies were now pouring, and split the Allied armies along the seam between Montgomery’s 21st Army Group and Bradley’s 12th. The blow would be so severe and demoralizing, Hitler believed, that the Allies would sue for a separate peace; he could then turn his attention back to preventing a collapse of his armies facing the Soviets in the east.
In charge of the counteroffensive in the west was Generalfeldmarschall Gerd von Rundstedt, the aged but able commander of Oberbefehlshaber West (or, OB West ). Beneath him was Generalfeldmarschall Walter Model’s formidable Army Group B, consisting of the Seventh Army, Fifth Panzer Army, and Sixth SS Panzer Army. The axis of attack would be through the same forest from which the Germans had launched their surprise attack against France in 1940—the thickly wooded Ardennes, from Monschau on the north to Echternach on the south. A military historian described the Ardennes as being “at once the nursery and the old folks’ home of the American command. New divisions came there for a battlefield shakedown, old ones to rest after heavy fighting and [to] absorb replacements for their losses.” In spite of its history, the Ardennes was an area that the Allies continued to mistakenly believe was “impenetrable.”
Just as the French were caught unawares in 1940, so too were the Americans at the end of 1944. Two recently arrived, unblooded American infantry divisions—Walter E. Lauer’s 99th and Allen W. Jones’s 106th, both of Troy Middleton’s VIII Corps—were in the front line along the “quiet” Ardennes, with the 1st Infantry Division, and others, to the north, in reserve.5 They would soon be given a rude introduction to battle by an initial German assault wave of some 250,000 men—some wearing American uniforms and driving captured American vehicles—with nearly 400 panzers and 335 self-propelled assault guns, and over 2,600 artillery pieces and rocket launchers. Another 55,000 troops and 561 armored vehicles stood in reserve, waiting for orders to move up and exploit the gains made by the first wave. Facing this force along the western front were only 83,000 Americans with 242 tanks, 182 tank destroyers, and 394 artillery pieces.
On the frigid night of 15/16 December 1944, Hitler’s uncompromising directive was issued to the keyed-up assault troops, who knew that their counteroffensive would spell either victory or defeat for the Third Reich: “Forward to and over the Meuse!” Before dawn on 16 December, the spearhead of the twenty-five- division German assault burst out of the forest and slammed into the unsuspecting 99th and 106th Divisions, sending many of the green officers and troops fleeing in panic. Whole battalions melted in the face of the German onslaught, but calmer voices soon prevailed as elements of the Big Red One were quickly mobilized and trucked to the northern shoulder of the German penetration. Captain Fred Hall, S-3 of the 16th Regiment’s 2nd Battalion, noted, “On 16 December, we were sent near Robertville, Belgium, with a mission to defend a position along the northern shoulder of the Battle of the Bulge. . . .We had continual contact with the enemy, and several Germans wearing American uniforms were captured in our area. These soldiers were promptly interrogated to determine unit identification, strength and mission. . . . We had the unfamiliar task of preparing defensive positions using barbed wire and mines.”
Sergeant First Class Dorris H. Barickman, from Bowling Green, Kentucky, and a member of the 1st Recon Troop, noted the tenseness of that time: “We got word that the German armored was coming. . . .We were given orders to hold and not retreat under any circumstances. Hard on the nerve system!”
In the Army’s official history of the Battle of the Bulge, historian Hugh Cole wrote, “The 26th Infantry of the uncommitted 1st Infantry Division, then placed on a 6-hour alert, finally entrucked at midnight and started the move south to Camp Elsenborn [Belgium]. The transfer of this regimental combat team would have a most important effect on the ensuing American defense.” Arriving in the 99th Division’s panicky command post at Elsenborn, an officer of the 26th Regiment declared, “You need worry no longer. The 1st Division is here. Everything is under control.”
The 26th Regiment began establishing defensive positions between the towns of Dom Butgenbach and German-held Büllingen on the night of 17 December to stop the Sixth Panzer Army from driving through that sector. It would not be easy. The weather was miserable; food and water froze; men were evacuated with frostbite; vehicles broke down; and weapons became all but inoperable in the bitter cold. (To quickly thaw the bolts on their weapons, some soldiers resorted to the only warm water they had—their urine.) Yet, none of this seemed to matter to the Germans who, in the early morning hours of 19 December, roared out of Büllingen and smashed into the 26th’s positions. The 33rd Field Artillery Battalion, assigned to support Lieutenant Colonel Derrill Daniel’s 2nd Battalion, 26th Regiment, still understrength from its ordeal in Aachen, fired illuminating rounds that exposed the charging panzers and infantry, then hammered the enemy with white-phosphorous and high-explosive shells until the assault lost its momentum and the German troops broke and retreated.
Later that morning, the Germans renewed their attack with fresh determination. Daniel’s 2nd Battalion, reinforced by a mere five Shermans from the 745th Tank Battalion and four self-propelled guns of the 634th Tank Destroyer Battal- ion, took the brunt of a determined assault by SS-Panzergrenadiers and tanks from the 12th SS Panzer (Hitlerjugend) Division. Riflemen and artillerymen combined to stop every German attack; bodies clad in field-gray overcoats littered the snowy landscape, and flaming panzers were everywhere. Once again, the enemy fell back to regroup and await reinforcements. The American line, too, was strengthened by the timely arrival of the 16th Regiment.
Al Alvarez, 7th Artillery, had been taking it easy before the fighting began, relaxing in a warm barn when, “Kaboom! A round came through an opening in the front wall and out the back wall with a startling, crackling explosion that showered us with debris. Straw flew everywhere, and we were covered with shards of wood, powdered stone, and animal droppings. No one was physically hurt, but someone had to change their laundry!”
During the night of 19/20 December, German artillery and Nebelwerfers (multi-barreled rocket launchers) began to saturate the 2nd Battalion’s positions. For three solid hours, the fire kept up, decimating an already-depleted G Company. As German infantry closed in under the cover of the barrage, Daniel called for all the artillery within range—twelve battalions—to hit the exposed enemy with an estimated 10,000 rounds. It was a slaughter, but the Germans would not give up. At about 0600 hours on the frigid, foggy morning of 20 December, twenty German tanks and an infantry battalion struck American positions at Dom Butgenbach. The 1st Division countered with a mortar and artillery saturation that momentarily stopped the assault in its tracks, but the panzers came on and entered the village. A 57mm anti-tank unit, defending 2nd Battalion headquarters, went into action. Against the thick frontal armor of the German tanks the 57mm gun was generally worthless; the clever American gunners held their fire until the tanks had rolled past their positions and then fired point-blank at the lightly armored rear sections, sending the panzers up in flames.
Before dawn, another ten German tanks came roaring from Büllingen, heading straight for Company F at Dom Butgenbach, but heavy fire drove them off. The enemy then turned west and hit the line held by Company G; artillery fire again pushed the Germans back. The panzers continued probing to the west, next striking Company E. As the historian Hugh Cole wrote, “The 60mm mortars illuminated the ground in front of the company at just the right moment and two of the three tanks heading the assault were knocked out by bazooka and 57mm fire from the flank. The third tank commander stuck his head out of the escape hatch to take a look around and was promptly pistolled by an American corporal.”
The American corporal was Henry F.Warner, of the 26th Infantry’s Anti- Tank Company. Ralph Puhalovich, a member of Warner’s unit, recalled, “[He] was a real quiet, unassuming, soft-spoken guy. He didn’t drink and he didn’t swear. You wouldn’t suspect that he would be a hero.” According to Warner’s Medal of Honor citation, “A third tank approached to within five yards of his position while he was attempting to clear a jammed breach lock. Jumping from his gun pit, he engaged in a pistol duel with the tank commander standing in the turret, killing him and forcing the tank to withdraw.” The next morning,Warner was again in the thick of fighting. “Seeing a Mark IV tank looming out of the mist and heading toward his position, Cpl.Warner scored a direct hit. Disregarding his injuries, he endeavored to finish the loading and again fire at the tank, whose motor was now aflame, when a second machinegun burst killed him.”
On the 21st, another full-scale attempt by the 12th SS Panzer and 25th Panzer Grenadier Regiments to break through the 26th’s lines was launched and, for several hours, the issue was seriously in doubt. Two platoons of the regiment’s anti-tank company were thrown into the action and the 57mm guns accounted for two or three kills before being destroyed. A lone American tank destroyer rushed to the scene and knocked out seven panzers heading toward Dom Butgenbach. As the desperate battle raged, German panzers crushed American positions under their steel treads, only to be stopped by men with bazookas and rifles and hand grenades who refused to die.
By the afternoon of 22 December, the entire 1st Infantry Division was back on the line along the northern shoulder of the Bulge, along with the 2nd and 9th Infantry Divisions. An official 26th Infantry Regiment report spoke of the ferocity of the fighting and the unbelievable bravery just days before Christmas: “Coming out of the mist which cloaked movements but seventy-five to a hundred yards away, the enemy tanks loomed up in front of the riflemen, who fought back with anti-tank guns, grenades, and rocket-guns. The massed tanks broke through the curtain of fire from infantrymen and the immediate supporting fires laid down by the artillery and tank and tank-destroyer elements, and overran the company main lines of resistance. Machine gunning the foxholes, the tanks sought to open a wedge for the following German infantry. Overrun and out-gunned, many riflemen died at their posts. Mortar crews left their weapons and joined the riflemen in repelling the German infantry. Machine gunners directed heavy and accurate streams of fire at the enemy. The smashing of machine-gun emplacements by the tanks that rode over the positions failed to halt the fire of the remaining machine gunners. . . .Ammunition bearers manned the weapons or fought as riflemen against the German tanks. The hostile armor rode back and forth across the gap, but failed to silence the riflemen who still fought off the German infantry. In the close fighting that followed, German tanks confidently made for the group of buildings housing the battalion CP and two company CPs. Locked in combat, the opposing infantry forces hurled every available man into the struggle.”
Only by summoning the last ounce of their strength, courage, and endurance were the Americans able to withstand the steel tide and prevent a German breakthrough. Giving the chilling order, “We stand and die here,” Daniel rallied his troops. A platoon of self-propelled 90mm guns from the 703rd Tank Destroyer Battalion arrived at the last moment and turned German tanks into scrap-iron hulks. It was estimated that forty-seven German armored vehicles were destroyed and nearly 800 German soldiers lost their lives trying to drive Daniel’s men out of Dom Butgenbach. The Americans lost nearly 250 men, five 57mm anti-tank guns, three tanks, and a tank destroyer.
Eisenhower wasn’t worried: “With these three proved and battle-tested units (the 1st, 2nd, and 9th Divisions) holding the position, the safety of our northern shoulder was practically a certainty.” It was only to the south, in a region known as the Schnee Eifel, east of St.Vith, that the American lines gave way and allowed for a deep, but temporary, enemy penetration. As the savage battle for the northern shoulder of the Bulge finally subsided, the Germans headed toward Bastogne and Malmédy, where the resistance was not quite as fierce, committing atrocities and leaving scores of their own dead and dying comrades bleeding in the snow or burning inside their panzers. The German drive eventually sputtered and died less than halfway to Antwerp as the Allies recovered from their shock and punished von Rundstedt’s armies severely; Hitler’s last-gasp gamble to secure a vital victory in the west had failed. The end of the war was at last in sight, but it would not come quickly nor easily.