Friday, December 17, 2010

Panzers in the Mist

Dec. 16th, 1944, started out bad and got worse, as the the Germans launched their operation "Wacht Am Rhein" ("Watch on the Rhine").

German panzer in advance, from captured German film. (US National Archives.)
Picture (and title of post) shamelessly stolen from John at Castle Argghhh!!!

The cream of the surviving Wehrmacht erupted out of the hills and forests of the Ardennes, objective Antwerp and a complete rupture of the Allied lines. It was a move born of desperation; in Field Marshall Model's terms, it was their "last chance to conclude the war favorably."

And it almost worked.

Throwing a massive weight of excellent German armor against an unaware and unready American line, the ensuing weeks of battle decided the fate of Germany.

We know now how it ended, but Christmas 1944 the fate of the war in Europe was still in question, and the certainty of the Allied successes in the summer of 1944 were suddenly very far away.

Instead, all they had was chaos and confusion - and the American soldier showed a tenacity that few knew they had. Hugh M. Cole tells what little of the story is known in his operational history, The Ardennes: Battle of the Bulge:

On the morning of 16 December General Middleton's VIII Corps had a formal corps reserve consisting of one armored combat command and four engineer combat battalions. In dire circumstances Middleton might count on three additional engineer combat battalions which, under First Army command, were engaged as the 1128th Engineer Group in direct support of the normal engineer operations on foot in the VIII Corps area. In exceptionally adverse circumstances, that is under conditions then so remote as to be hardly worth a thought, the VIII Corps would have a last combat residue-poorly armed and ill-trained for combat-made up of rear echelon headquarters, supply, and technical service troops, plus the increment of stragglers who might, in the course of battle, stray back from the front lines. General Middleton would be called upon to use all of these "reserves." Their total effect in the fight to delay the German forces hammering through the VIII Corps center would be extremely important but at the same time generally incalculable, nor would many of these troops enter the pages of history.

A handful of ordnance mechanics manning a Sherman tank fresh from the repair shop are seen at a bridge. By their mere presence they check an enemy column long enough for the bridge to be demolished. The tank and its crew disappear. They have affected the course of the Ardennes battle, even though minutely, but history does not record from whence they came or whither they went. A signal officer checking his wire along a byroad encounters a German column; he wheels his jeep and races back to alert a section of tank destroyers standing at a crossroad. Both he and the gunners are and remain anonymous. Yet the tank destroyers with a few shots rob the enemy of precious minutes, even hours. A platoon of engineers appears in one terse sentence of a German commander's report. They have fought bravely, says the foe, and forced him to waste a couple of hours in deployment and maneuver. In this brief emergence from the fog of war the engineer platoon makes its bid for recognition in history. That is all.

These unknown men would decide the fate of Europe. All of the blood, sweat, and tears that had been expended since June 6, 1944, depended on whether or not these unknowns held. Whether or not these few could buy enough time for Allied reserves to be brought up, divisions rallied, and the weather to clear so Allied air support could enter the fray.

We know now how this story ends; of the heroic struggle of the green US 99th Division; of the stand of the 7th Armored at St. Vith; of the siege at Bastogne the made a legend of the 101st Airborne; and the ultimate counteroffensive that transformed a German victory into the Wehrmacht's undoing.

But for a few days in December 1944, history hinged on the actions of a few cold, tired, and scared G.I.'s, men whose names we would never even know.

A small group of stragglers suddenly become tired of what seems to be eternally retreating. Miles back they ceased to be part of an organized combat formation, and recorded history, at that point, lost them. The sound of firing is heard for fifteen minutes, an hour, coming from a patch of woods, a tiny village, the opposite side of a hill. The enemy has been delayed; the enemy resumes the march westward. Weeks later a graves registration team uncovers mute evidence of a last-ditch stand at woods, village, or hill.