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Saturday, October 01, 2016


Steve Cole describes 10 things you didn't know about the Battle of the Bulge (the big German attack on 16 December 1944):
1. Everyone knows about the big German tank attack in the Battle of the Bulge. Few know that this attack involved 40,000 horses. These were not horse cavalry, but draft horses pulling artillery and supply wagons. Most of the German Army of World War II used horses. (That is why the Germans never used poison gas; they could not protect their horses from retaliation.) More German soldiers knew how to take care of a horse than drive a truck. There were not enough trucks and not enough gasoline to mechanize the entire German Army.
2. In mid-December of 1944, the Allied code breakers detected a flurry of weather reports from German submarines in the north Atlantic, but had no idea why the Germans had suddenly developed such an interest in the weather. The Germans wanted to pick a time with a week of cloudy skies (that would ground the feared Allied fighter-bombers). The way weather works in Europe, what is going on in Spitzbergen and Iceland today is what will be happening in Luxembourg five days later.
3. The German attack wasn't that big. While there were three "armies" involved, they were barely at half strength. The 5th and 6th Panzer Armies had four tank divisions and two infantry divisions each. The 7th Army had only four infantry divisions and a couple of dozen assault guns (like tanks but smaller and the guns were in fixed housings, not turrets). All of the divisions were stuffed full of untrained replacements transferred from the Navy and Luftwaffe or 17 year old draftees. The biggest problem was the shortage of engineers to build bridges, since it was impossible to go a dozen miles in the Ardennes without crossing a significant river.
4. The Germans decided to use paratroops to create an "airborne carpet" for the tanks. While the Allies had employed 36 battalions of paratroops and glider troops (plus nine battalions of parachute artillery) at Arnhem (where the idea failed) the Germans could only scrape up one battalion (800 volunteers, half of whom had jumped out of an airplane a few years earlier, half of whom had never jumped). They picked a likely spot (a key crossroads on a hill) as the target. Three hundred of the paratroops managed to land somewhere near that point, but after waiting three days for tank troops who never arrived, those men tried to sneak back to Germany and only half of them made it. Of the other 500, about half landed behind German lines by mistake or never jumped at all, and the rest were scattered over such a wide area that the Allies became convinced that an entire division of crack paratroopers had jumped over every critical point in the Ardennes. As happened at Normandy, the botched parachute landing caused more good by confusing the enemy than by actually capturing something important.
5. The Germans had blasted their way through a screen of light French troops in 1940 over the same road network in the same forest, but this time, there were Americans there. The Americans were mostly newly arrived troops or new replacements in burned out divisions, and 80% of them had never seen battle before the German attack. (By this point in the war, the cannon company and anti-tank company of each regiment had found their weapons useless and were deployed as extra infantry.) The Americans were too untrained to execute a fighting withdrawal. Their communications system (consisting of telephone wires as they were short of radios) was shot up the first hour of the attack. About all the Americans could do was dig in and hang on out of sheer stubbornness. (One platoon of 18 men, a recon unit not line infantry, held up an entire parachute regiment for an entire day, virtually destroying one of its battalions.) That turned out to be just exactly the right thing to do, as it blocked the German troops from their fast breakthrough and jammed the road networks. That gave time for troops from north and south of the German assault to attack sideways and stop the breakthrough.
6. Hitler ordered the Luftwaffe to assemble a strike force of more than 1,000 fighters for a major operation, but didn't tell them what the operation was. (He was obsessed with keeping the attack a secret.) The Luftwaffe assumed that this was to be the long-awaited "day the American bombers die" that had been planned, so they deployed and trained their fighters for that mission. Two days before the attack, Hitler finally told them that their mission was to sweep the skies over the Ardennes forest and then attack Allied airfields to destroy the Allied fighter-bombers. Because the Army waited for bad weather to ground the Allied planes, the German planes could not launch their attack until a week later. They destroyed 305 planes on the ground and damaged 200, but killed only 35 allied airmen. The planes were replaced within days, so the German attack had no effect. The Germans, however, lost 324 pilots, many of them veterans who had been flying for years but had not done ground attacks since 1941. This destroyed the cream of what was left of the Luftwaffe.
7. Otto Skorzeny was told to create the 150th Panzer Brigade of English-speaking Germans wearing American uniforms and driving captured vehicles. Their mission was to drive through American lines and seize any bridge over the Meuse river they could find intact. While this was a bold idea, in reality there were very few Germans who spoke American-English, and only a half dozen captured American armored vehicles. In the end, Skorzeny sent 44 soldiers (in US uniforms) in 11 captured jeeps through American lines, of which 36 men in nine jeeps came home a week later. (The others were caught or killed. Most of Skorzeny's troops were used as a conventional tank brigade.) The tiny number of troops, however, was magnified by American panic until there was an English-speaking German behind every tree. (American records note over 300 "Germans in US uniforms" were executed.) Units set up checkpoints and arrested hundreds of Americans (including General Omar Bradley), causing more fear and confusion. (American soldiers shot the tires out of British Field Marshal Montgomery's staff car when he refused to answer questions about Disney characters.) None of the Americans knew the official passwords so they resorted to asking questions like "Who won the World Series?" and "What is the capital of Illinois?" but lots of American soldiers were not baseball fans or had no idea what city was the capital of distant states they had never visited. (The man who arrested Omar Bradley thought that Chicago was the capital of Illinois and arrested the general for giving the correct answer of Springfield.) Troops from all over the US were wandering around the battlefield, and some of them assumed that any accent from another part of the US must be how a German sounds when he's trying to speak English.
8. Everyone knows the story of the 101st Airborne (the "Screaming Eagles") who held out in Bastogne for two weeks, delaying the German offensive by blocking key parts of the road net. The 101st didn't act alone. There was a brigade of the 9th Armored Division in Bastogne (although it had been badly shot up before the 101st arrived) and a brigade of the 10th Armored Division as well. There were also several battalions of extra artillery. Bastogne had been a corps headquarters and had fairly extensive stockpiles of supplies except for medical supplies and artillery ammunition. Most of what was parachuted into the city was those two items, along with a number of surgeons since the 101st's own medical unit was captured by Germans before it could reach the scene. The rival 82nd Airborne Division very nearly underwent a similar siege at Saint Vith but Field Marshal Montgomery (who had taken command of US troops north of the breakthrough) ordered them to pull back to avoid being surrounded.
9. One of the forgotten units involved in the battle was the Canadian "9th Forestry Company" composed of lumberjacks. They spent the fall of 1944 and spring of 1945 in the Ardennes (which was a huge forest) cutting down trees to feed US Army Corps of Engineers sawmills that provided lumber for the entire Allied invasion force of seven field armies (US, British, Canadian, and French). The Canadians were only too happy to join the battle. They spread out in small teams, chopping down huge trees and dropping them across dozens of roads that the Germans wanted to use. It took only minutes to drop a tree, but it could take hours for the Germans to call forward (on jammed roads) special engineers with explosives and tools to get the trees out of the road. This slowed the Germans down, and in battle, moving slowly is the way to fail. (There were apparently several other Canadian forestry companies but only one of them is mentioned in any book I have, and I have a lot of books about the Battle of the Bulge.)
10. The only British unit to take part in the battle was the 29th Armored Brigade. (Several British divisions were moved to the area and blocked the Meuse River, which the Germans never reached.) How this unit came to join the battle is an interesting story. The unit had been in combat for months and had worn out their Sherman tanks. They were scheduled to receive new Sherman-Firefly tanks with better guns and better armor, but the problem was that the trains to the British sector were overworked delivering food and ammunition. The simple answer was for the 29th Armored Brigade to drive its worn-out tanks to a rail depot in the American sector and pick up the tanks there and drive them back to the British sector. The brigade was at the depot waiting for the trainloads of new tanks when the battle started, so they quickly mounted their old worn-out tanks (which they had parked in neat rows so they could be given to the French) and drove the relatively short distance to the battle. Speaking of British Field Marshal Montgomery: when he took command of the US troops north of the breakthrough, he sent a special liaison unit to 1st Army headquarters to make nice with the Yanks and ensure that everyone played on the same team. Montgomery hand-picked for his liaison to the US 1st Army a lieutenant-colonel who "just happened" to be the famous actor David Niven. The Americans were so busy asking for his autograph that they didn't resent taking orders from the British. Niven was accompanied by a plucky young driver who hoped to someday have an acting career. That man's name was Peter Ustinov.