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The Story of the Bulge
By John Toland
UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESSCopyright © 1959 John Toland
All rights reserved.
THE GHOST FRONT
15 December 1944
The night of December 15, 1944, was cold and quiet along the Ardennes Front.
At 10:00 P.M. the American troops in Echternach, a quaint medieval town in the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, were abed or going to bed in yellow patrician houses with dormer windows and mansard roofs. They saw no sign of activity from the Germans in the crumbling cliff-top abbey that overlooked them from across the swift narrow Sauer River. They had nothing to stay up for in Echternach itself. Since September, when the Americans had liberated Luxembourg at the end of their wild dash through France, the town's 3,300 citizens had been living in evacuation quarters behind the hills to the west.
Echternach, the southern anchor of the Ardennes Front, was being held by a single company of riflemen. And by 10:30 P.M. all but a few of them were asleep.
Twisting eighty-five miles through terrain reminiscent of the Berkshires and the Green Mountains, the front was held by six American divisions. Of these six, three divisions were brand-new and had been sent here to get "blooded" — lightly tested in combat before being assigned to a major engagement; the other three, exhausted and bled white in battle, were here to be refitted, retrained.
For the Ardennes Front was the "Ghost Front" — a cold quiet place where artillery was fired mainly for registration and patrols probed the enemy lines only to keep in practice. Within rifle range of each other, German observers watched the Americans eat, and the American observers watched the women come at dusk and steal into the pillboxes of the Siegfried Line. For over two months now both sides had rested and watched and avoided irritating each other.
From Echternach, the front swung northward along the winding Sauer River. The hill-straddling American lines were manned by the 4th Division, which the month before had suffered 7,500 casualties in the brief but bitter battle of Hürtgen Forest. On the German side of the river the battlement-like cliff continued, concealing the forward positions of the Siegfried Line.
About five miles north of Echternach the 9th Armored Division took over. Newly arrived in Europe, it had been in position for just a week. Actually only one combat command — roughly equivalent to an infantry regiment — was on the line; the other two were garrisoned in reserve fifty miles to the north. One week up front, and already the officers were worried: how could their men be battle-tested when there was so little action?
At 10:30 P.M. it was drizzling on the 9th Armored front. "I'm living in a dugout," wrote Lieutenant Clifford Penrose to his wife, "and the damn thing is starting to leak tonight. So don't let a few blurred spots bother you, it isn't beer. We had Spam for supper tonight. And then your package came. Thanks a lot, but next time don't send Spam."
After six miles, where the Our River flows into the Sauer from the north, the lines were taken over by the 28th, another veteran infantry division that had suffered heavily in the Hürtgen Forest.
The front continued north along the Our. This fast-flowing river was only fifty feet wide, but the towering bluffs on both sides restricted vehicular crossing to a few places. One of these crossings, eight miles above the Our's confluence with the Sauer, was at Vianden, a picture-book town that crouches beneath the splendid ruins of a huge rambling castle. This fortress, which had held off Vianden's enemies for centuries, was now an observation post for thirty-six American soldiers.
At 11:00 P.M. most of the men in Vianden were asleep. But in the dining room of the Heintz Hotel, on a table that had served royalty, prime ministers, and great authors, several GIs were patching a boat and talking of the one-armed German sergeant who had been picked up earlier that night on the other side of the river. Ever since, the captive had kept crying in terror, "The Germans come tonight! The Germans come tonight!" He begged them to flee to the west — and take him.
About fifteen miles farther north, the front crossed the Our and poked through the Siegfried Line into Germany. From this breach, the 28th Division positions continued almost due east for another seven or eight miles. Then the 106th Division — the Golden Lions — manned the defenses.
This was not only the newest American division in the Ardennes; it was also the newest Allied division on any front. Transported across France and Belgium through cold rain in open trucks, the men had arrived, drenched and miserable, only a few days before. Immediately some encouragement had come their way. As they took over from the 2nd Division, those battle-wise veterans had shouted, "Lucky guys! You're coming into a rest campl" And a regimental commander of the 2nd had told a regimental commander of the 106th, "It's been very quiet up here, and your men will learn the easy way." By now the young newcomers — these were the first of the eighteen-year-old draftees — were cockier than the veterans and certain they "had it made" for the duration.
"Never expected your little boy to get this far, did you?" nineteen-year-old Pfc. Joe Schectman was writing to his folks in Plymouth, Pennsylvania. "We are billeted as comfortably and safely as we were in England. Of course there's no telling how long I'll be in this paradise. But as long as I am, I'll be safe."
And a few miles to his north 1st Lieutenant Alan Jones, Jr., a regimental staff officer, was staring dreamily from his bunker. He saw nothing but a typical Christmas card scene: icicles two feet long, snow-covered fir trees. At ease in this peaceful world he turned his thoughts to his wife Lynn in Washington, D.C. Soon she would have a baby, their first.
Young Jones's sense of tranquillity was not shared by his father, Major General Alan Jones, commander of the 106th Division. That day he had come up to the front lines and chatted with his son.
Noticing his father's .32 pistol, young Jones had remarked jokingly, "I could use that, Dad."
"I really should give it to you. But I might need it myself." General Jones's tone had been as bantering as his son's, but inwardly he was extremely worried. He had been worried from the first moment he had seen a situation map: his entire division was out on a salient thrust six miles into the Siegfried Line. This area, called the Schnee Eifel (Snow Mountains), was a range of rugged wooded hills, rolling fields, and twisting streams, with tiny villages squatting atop bald ridges or hidden in deep valleys. Through the Schnee Eifel ran miles of Hitler's "dragon's teeth" — concrete tank traps — and hundreds of cleverly camouflaged pillboxes.
As soon as he had taken his positions — "man for man and gun for gun," his orders said — Jones had protested that this whole salient could easily be cut off. Too many of his defense points were located in villages in the valleys, and his men were open to attack from all sides and above.
But Generals Hodges, Bradley, and Eisenhower insisted that this finger sticking into the Siegfried Line would be a valuable bridgehead when Germany was invaded. That it could be bitten off was a risk, true, but only a small one.
Jones was also worried about a long narrow valley which lay just to the north of the Schnee Eifel. This valley was a seven-mile-wide corridor that led from Germany to Belgium. It was called the Losheim Gap.
Even the name conjured up danger. For the Losheim Gap was the classic gateway from east to west. Through it invading German armies had poured in 1870, in 1914, and in 1940. Although no one in his right mind believed the Germans would try a fourth time, Jones fretted. If they did, his men on the Schnee Eifel would be trapped.
All except the northernmost two miles of the seven-mile Losheim Gap was his to guard. Moreover, the five miles that were his responsibility were held by troops he had never seen, the 14th Cavalry Group. Jones had inherited these men from the previous occupants of the Schnee Eifel, the 2nd Division. As yet there had been no time for his officers even to visit their Losheim Gap positions.
In a house on the eastern edge of the tiny village of Krewinkel, a sergeant in this 14th Cavalry Group, John Banister, was holed up with his platoon. Only the day before, while on patrol, he had spied fifty Germans dragging a heavily laden sled to a lonely house. His report of the surprising concentration of men and equipment went up through channels, and he heard no more about it. But toward midnight of December 15, Banister found himself getting out of bed, going to the window, and looking out nervously toward the house to the east.
Beyond the sector of the 14th Cavalry Group, the front bore north again. For two miles there wasn't a single tank or a single foxhole. This area was so lightly patrolled that German soldiers on leave often walked safely through to visit homes behind American lines. And this two-mile hole was the top section of the Losheim Gap.
The storm door between Germany and Belgium, if not wide open, was invitingly ajar. Only nine hundred cavalrymen — ill-suited by training and equipment to a static defense — were guardians of the most important gateway in Europe.
Equally dangerous was the fact that here at this vital spot the lines of Major General Troy Middleton's VIII Corps — comprising the 4th, 9th Armored, 28th, and 106th Divisions — ended and those of his friend, Leonard Gerow, began. As all military men know, the boundary between corps is exceedingly weak. Though two soldiers can shake hands across this boundary, the chain of command separates them by a hundred miles.
Gerow's V Corps began with the 99th Division, which was almost as green as the neighboring 106th.
For the GIs of the 99th, who had been in the Ardennes a month but had seen little action, conditions were far from ideal. They didn't mind the quiet, but foxholes were general accommodation, and why had the hot chow been cut out the last few days? Now they were down to "D" bars, a sickening concoction of concentrated chocolate sometimes called "Hitler's Secret Weapon."
Toward the northern end of the 99th Division sector, a complex maneuver was going on: the 2nd Division, just moved up from the Schnee Eifel salient, was attacking through the 99th lines in a narrow two-mile corridor. The 2nd had been trying the past three days to smash a hole in the Siegfried Line, break through, and knife north to the Roer Dams. These dams, a menace to the entire Allied advance into the Roer Valley, had to be captured before the main attack started. For if their sluices were opened, the advancing army would be flooded and cut off from the rear.
At midnight, the men of the 2nd Division were stalled in front of Wahlerscheid, a heavily fortified crossroads. As they waited, Lieu-tenant Jesse Morrow passed time talking to Captain Fred Aringdale. It was a desultory conversation, but suddenly Aringdale said, "You know, Morrow, I'm going to be killed tomorrow."
"That's not a good joke."
"I wonder who decided I'd never live to be thirty?"
Aringdale's certainty turned Morrow cold.
North of the 2nd Division attack corridor, the lines of the 99th resumed, ran a few miles farther, and ended at the historic German border town of Monschau, which nestled in a narrow serpentine valley between wooded mountains.
Nowhere along the Ghost Front was the feeling of comfortable confidence stronger than at Monschau, its northern terminus, some eighty-five winding miles above Echternach. Rumor was that Hitler had bicycled through its cobbled streets and stopped to admire its rococo buildings; that he himself had ordered that the whole town be treated as a museum and spared the ravages of war. In any case, no German shell had ever landed in Monschau; and, convinced none ever would, the handful of American cavalrymen in town had gone to bed early in their thick featherbeds. For to them tomorrow would be like yesterday — comfortable, quiet, and a little cold.
All along the Ghost Front, from Echternach to Monschau, the 75,000 American troops made little note of midnight December 15. Those few who did felt only that they were one day closer to a Christmas far from home.
Behind the front, division command posts and rest camps were much like stateside garrisons. That night in the dingy village of Honsfeld, Belgium, five miles behind the Losheim Gap, a movie was shown at a 99th Division rest camp. The sound track broke down, and while repairs were being made the men invented dialogue of their own and delivered it in shouts. Later, as they filed out of the recreation hall, a hot rumor went the rounds: Marlene Dietrich would arrive to put on a show next morning. Immediately riflemen scheduled to return to the front at 8:00 A.M. began conspiring to postpone their departure till noon.
Thirty miles behind the Losheim Gap, in friendly Vielsalm, Belgium, the reserve half of the 14th Cavalry Group was watching a USO Camp Show. The men enjoyed the whole show, even the performer who ate crackers and sang at the same time. The GIs' main concerns were food and mail from home; the officers', food, mail from home, and their liquor ration.
Halfway back to the front, General Alan Jones, commander of the 106th Division, sat at his desk in a somber, stone schoolhouse, in the somber town of St. Vith, Belgium. He was still deeply worried. Even St. Vith made him uneasy. Unlike the picturesque towns of Luxembourg, it was an ugly if important road center, a clutter of depressing stone buildings barren of decoration. The shop windows were lettered in German; everything, even the church, was formidably and uncompromisingly Teutonic.
In the past century the entire sector around St. Vith had changed hands four times. Half the people felt they were Belgian, the other half German. Neighbor was suspicious of neighbor. As a result a strange, foreboding atmosphere — half friendly, half sullen — hung over Jones's command post.
So far that night he had received no disquieting reports from the front. All was apparently quiet. But it had not been so the previous two nights. The roar of many motors had been heard from the enemy lines. Jones had quickly reported "heavy armored movements" to his immediate superior, Troy Middleton of VIII Corps. Middleton's staff had only been amused. "Don't be so jumpy," one VIII Corps officer had chided. "The Krauts are just playing phonograph records to scare you newcomers."
This wasn't all. Two fires, both caused by a carelessness infuriating to the well-ordered Jones, had recently destroyed a battalion motor pool and a regimental command post. Two tempting target areas had been lit up. Yet not a single round of enemy artillery had been fired on them. Jones was again suspicious. Again more experienced hands insisted this was only graphic proof that the Germans had no shells to waste.
Jones tried to persuade himself his fears were groundless as he walked to his billet in a nearby house. This was his first time in action. Newcomers to battle were notoriously jittery. Besides, who was he to argue with old campaigners? During World War I he had gone directly from the University of Washington to the army as a second lieutenant. Since then he had worked his way up to command of a division without benefit of West Point training. He was the complete opposite of the Patton type of general. Many of his own troops had never seen him, for he kept in the background, running the 106th Division in a quiet, unspectacular manner.
In bed Jones couldn't sleep. He felt a personal responsibility to every young rifleman sitting out on the Schnee Eifel.
Almost squarely in the middle and six miles to the rear of the Ghost Front, several hundred men of the veteran 28th Division were enjoying themselves that night in the Clervaux Rest Center. This breathtakingly beautiful Luxembourg town, long a tourist's delight with its narrow winding cobblestone streets, its towering monastery and baroque houses, also boasted the romantic ruins of a medieval castle once owned by the ancestors of Franklin D. Roosevelt.
In spite of the peaceful atmosphere, Joseph Geiben, a young townsman who had deserted from the German Army, was troubled. There were too many stories being told of a great Nazi buildup behind the Siegfried Line. Some of them had to be true. If attack did come, his beautiful little Clervaux would be in the path of the Nazi columns. It lay directly behind the main crossing of the Our River on the road to Bastogne, key town of the Ardennes. Why didn't the Americans heed the warnings?
Actually the few Americans who took note of the warnings had a sound explanation for the Germans' moving into the area. Troy Middleton had just conducted a big "rubber duck" operation not far from Clervaux. GIs posing as generals had ridden around the countryside, as if selecting billets for a new division; papier-mache tanks and guns had been paraded around to simulate the arrival of fresh troops. The purpose had been to decoy German units from the Saar and Roer areas into the Ardennes. Apparently the Germans had swallowed the bait.
That night no Allied commander seriously feared a major German attack. Yet in Bastogne, Belgium, about twenty miles west of Clervaux, Middleton, whose VIII Corps comprised the bulk of the Ghost Front, was uneasy. A woman had been sent up that morning from the 28th Division. She told of seeing, just the night before, a mass of German troops behind the Siegfried Line east of Clervaux. And their tanks were twice as large as anything the Americans had.
Middleton realized that if an attack did fall, his four divisions — two green, two exhausted — would be hard put to defend themselves. So he sent the woman on up the chain of command to his chief, Lieutenant General Courtney Hodges, commander of First Army.
Excerpted from Battle by John Toland. Copyright © 1959 John Toland. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
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Table of Contents
ContentsPART ONE: Operation "Christrose",
1. THE GHOST FRONT,
2. "WATCH ON THE RHINE",
6. END AT CLERVAUX,
PART TWO: "Hold the Reins Loose",
1. SPEARHEADS THROUGH BELGIUM,
2. SPEARHEADS THROUGH LUXEMBOURG,
4. A CALL TO MONTGOMERY,
5. FOG OF WAR,
6. THE BATTLE SHAPES,
7. DEATH OF A TOWN,
PART THREE: Black Christmas,
1. THE FORTIFIED GOOSE EGG,
3. THE RUSSIAN HIGH,
4. DAY OF DECISION,
5. "IN THY DARK STREETS",
6. "WE CANNOT FORCE THE MEUSE",
PART FOUR: Twilight of the Gods,
1. QUEEN OF BATTLE,
2. CANDIDATES FOR DEATH,
3. "BRAVE RIFLES ...",
4. IN DUBIOUS BATTLE,
5. JUNCTION AT HOUFFALIZE,
6. "ALLES KAPUTT!",