Those Who Hold Bastogne: The True Story of the Soldiers and Civilians Who Fought in the Biggest Battle of the Bulge

Those Who Hold Bastogne: The True Story of the Soldiers and Civilians Who Fought in the Biggest Battle of the Bulge

by Peter Schrijvers

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300216141
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 11/03/2015
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 328
Sales rank: 801,504
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 7.70(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author


Peter Schrijvers, a senior lecturer at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, is the author of five previous books on World War II.

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Those Who Hold Bastogne

The True Story of the Soldiers and Civilians Who Fought in the Biggest Battle of the Bulge


By Peter Schrijvers

Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS

Copyright © 2014 Peter Schrijvers
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-300-21012-5



CHAPTER 1

LIVES FOR TIME


"So Willie is in the Infantry!" Paul Yearout sounded both incredulous and apprehensive in the letter to his wife in Georgia. "I hope he doesn't have to come over here," he confided, "because this is a rough, rugged life, and I don't believe Willie could take it." "Sometimes," he confessed, "I begin to wonder about myself."

By now Paul Yearout knew a few things about life in the infantry. The university graduate was a lieutenant in the 110th Regiment of the 28th Infantry Division. Less than a month before, Pennsylvania's National Guard division, ominously known as "The Bloody Bucket" because of its distinctive red shoulder patch, had gone through the worst experience of the war so far. In November 1944, it had been sent into the dense Hürtgen Forest that shielded the German border south and east of Aachen. Hemmed in as they were by an experienced enemy dominating the high ground, the battle for soggy roads and decrepit villages had gone from bad to worse for the Americans. Some would later blame the disaster on the GIs' commanders, from the division level all the way up to the highest echelons. But the foot soldiers did not have the faintest idea of who was to blame for what they had been put through. All they knew was that, by the time they were withdrawn, the battle for the somber German forest had become "synonymous with futility in war" at a human cost that was staggering. One of their opponents in the ferocious battle, General Rudolf von Gersdorff, a veteran of combat on both the Western and the Eastern Front, claimed the fighting was "the heaviest I have ever witnessed." In a matter of weeks, two-thirds of Paul Yearout's regiment had been wiped out. Twelve hundred of his 3,200 comrades had ended up as battle casualties. Another 890 had fallen victim to trench foot, combat exhaustion, and sickness. "You are right about the missing link from Nov. 12th to Nov. 21st," Paul continued in the letter to his wife Mimi. "I couldn't write during that time as I was in the thick of it up in the Hürtgen Forest. It was just plain Hell and I'll tell you about it some of these days."

In civilian life, the science graduate had been employed as a chemist by the DuPont Company, at its plant in Waynesboro, Virginia. Just months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and America's entry into World War II, it had transferred him to the Remington Arms branch in Missouri. Ordnance work was a vital part of the war effort on the home front. Still, in March 1943, married and the father of two small children, Paul had decided that his country needed him even more in the front lines overseas and had relinquished his military service deferment. It had been the start of a stressful nomadic life that had taken Paul and his family to training camps in Georgia and Texas, before abruptly whisking him off to war in Europe.

The wrenching experience in the Hürtgen Forest had left its mark on Lieutenant Yearout, as it had on all those lucky enough to survive the ordeal. The bespectacled officer tried to sound light-hearted in a message to his three-year-old son as he reached the end of his letter. "Tell Pete," he joked to his wife, "I had a good time yesterday chasing Jerries from Pillbox to Pillbox." But Mimi no doubt sensed the depth of his gloom when he made a clumsy attempt to put her mind at ease. "I'll be O.K.," he insisted, "and if I ever should get injured, it would probably be a break for me."

"I love you so much darling," Lieutenant Yearout wrote in closing, "and would give anything if this mess were all over and we could live normal lives again." The American managed to take at least some comfort from the fact that just recently colder weather had caused the ground to freeze a little. "Before long," he predicted, "tanks will be able to roll – then look out Jerry!!"

Lieutenant Yearout placed the long letter to his wife in an envelope and carefully sealed it on Friday night, December 15, 1944. Little did he know that, in a matter of hours, German tanks would be rolling through the front lines, making the normal lives that he and his comrades were dreaming of appear further away than at any other time during the war.


1

Following the debacle in the Hürtgen Forest, the 28th Infantry Division, mauled and dispirited, had been withdrawn to allow veterans to rest and recover while replacements strengthened the badly depleted ranks. Lieutenant Yearout and his comrades had been sent to what was known to be a relatively quiet sector along the Luxembourg border with Germany. There they had come under the control of VIII Corps on November 20. The corps commander, General Troy Middleton, was operating his headquarters from the sleepy Belgian crossroads town of Bastogne, some 16 miles to their rear. Middleton was an affable, mild-mannered southerner. The fifth of nine children, the 55-year-old general had grown up on a 400-acre plantation in Copiah County, Mississippi. Now, stationed in the Belgian Ardennes in winter, he fondly remembered his Dixie upbringing: the sweltering summers, punctuated by the powerful sermons of Baptist preachers; the long days of hunting, catching catfish, and horseback riding; tables laden with cornbread, grits, collards, and black-eyed peas. The general, who looked more like a university professor with his round, thin-rimmed glasses, had been ordered to hold no less than 85 miles of the grim German West Wall with his corps. The area extended southward from the Losheim Gap, along a large stretch of the west bank of the Sûre and Moselle rivers. It left the Mississippian no other option than to spread his troops very thinly along this massive length of front.

Where standard tactics prescribed the assignment of a front of 4–5 miles to a division, the 28th Infantry Division was told to settle down along a vast stretch of 28 miles. Their frontline terrain ran from Lützkampen in Germany, just north of the Luxembourg border, to an area south of the Luxembourg town of Vianden. This exceptional situation made any defense in depth impossible. General Dutch Cota was forced to place all his division's three infantry regiments in the front line, leaving only the most minimal of reserves at their backs, to offer support in case of an enemy attack in force. Even then it still proved impossible to build a continuous defensive line. Instead, troops were concentrated in village strong points that were connected by no more than roving patrols.


The command post of the 110th Infantry Regiment to which Lieutenant Yearout belonged was set up in Clervaux, a Luxembourg town separated from the German West Wall and front line by no more than five miles. The regimental commander, 50-year-old Colonel Hurley Fuller, belonged in a category of his own. A Texan, he came from a broken home and, at the age of 20, had made the army his surrogate family. As a young lieutenant, he had seen action in the Argonne Forest during World War I. The horrors of trench warfare had left him permanently scarred. Moreover, his cantankerous manner and lack of political skills had made him few friends. When the regiment he commanded in the 2nd Infantry Division had become hopelessly stuck in the hedgerow country of Normandy in the summer of 1944, his commanders had relieved him on the spot. He owed his current job with the 110th Infantry to General Middleton. Middleton had known Fuller since World War I. He had placed the Texan at the head of the regiment when its regular commander was hospitalized with shrapnel wounds during the battle for the Hürtgen Forest.

Now, in December 1944, Colonel Fuller had more reason than ever to feel frustrated and sullen. His regiment, placed at the center of the 28th Infantry Division's front, was made responsible for a full 10 miles of the 28 miles of front line. To make matters worse, of the three infantry regiments in the line, his had been selected to give up a full battalion that was to operate as a divisional reserve force. The 2nd Battalion, Lieutenant Yearout's outfit, had been taken out of the line and sent to the town of Donnange in the rear, just west of Clervaux. All that remained now were the 1st Battalion to cover the regiment's left flank and the 3rd Battalion to man the right flank. As was happening elsewhere in the division, each of Fuller's two battalions established a handful of village strong points. In Fuller's sector, these were perched on a ridge that ran parallel to the Clerf River somewhat farther to the west and the Our River that it overlooked immediately to the east. On the other side of the Our River loomed the West Wall, and behind it a German enemy that had, for some time now, remained uncharacteristically quiet. The American regiment's key strong points were those villages that were connected by a road running along the ridge. The road's impressive view, as well as its quality, remarkable in this densely forested area, had prompted American soldiers to dub it the Skyline Drive.


On the other side of the West Wall, the spectacle of the Our River, and of the ridge and scenic road just beyond it, was causing few poetic stirrings among the Germans. They were all businesslike and were determined to keep their frantic activity hidden from American view. For several weeks now, they had steadily and secretly been building up a massive force in front of General Middleton's men. The Fifth Panzer Army, the middle one of three German armies poised to execute Hitler's counteroffensive in the West, dwarfed an American force that was of mere corps size and composed of troops that were either in desperate need of rest or dangerously raw. The reputation of the German army commander was just as massive. General von Manteuffel was so small and fragile-looking that his friends had come to nickname him "Kleiner" – "Little One." But his wiry frame harbored an iron will and a sharp intellect. Hasso Eccard von Manteuffel was born into one of the oldest noble families of Prussia. He had performed very impressively as commander of the elite Panzergrenadier Division "Grossdeutschland" on the Eastern Front. So much so that the Führer had called him to Germany to promote him, not to corps commander, but to leader of the entire Fifth Panzer Army.

The XLVII Panzer Corps formed the steel fist of von Manteuffel's army. It was designed to smash a hole through the weak defensive line of Fuller's 110th Infantry, capture the vital road center of Bastogne, 19 miles west of the German frontier, and then steal across the Meuse River upstream from Namur. The 26th Volksgrenadier Division brought up the infantrymen for the offensive. This seasoned division had participated in the invasion of France in 1940. Committed to the Eastern Front from the outset in 1941, it had been destroyed and rebuilt several times in the course of the Russian campaign. In September 1944, the badly mauled division had been pulled out of the Vistula front south of Warsaw, to be reorganized once again. Early in November, the infantrymen, under the command of Colonel Heinz Kokott, had been moved to the Eifel region, the German border area with Luxembourg. Here they were left impressed by the sight of large numbers of laborers from all over Europe and Russia hard at work strengthening the homeland's West Wall. Kokott's men, a force of more than 10,000, were soon reinforced with a backbone of two elite armored divisions, the 2nd Panzer Division and the Panzer Lehr Division, both of which had fought ferociously during the Normandy campaign. "During the days the Eifel roads were lifeless and deserted," one of Kokott's regimental officers noted, "and it was not until nightfall that obscure, cautious and silent movement set in." "Huge quantities of ammunition, all well-camouflaged," the German officer observed, "were dumped everywhere. Guns were placed in the forests and long columns of vehicles on the edges." By mid-December, a massive concentration of tanks "extended far back into the hinterland."

Even so, the Germans refused to be lulled into a false sense of security. The Volksgrenadiers, who had made their way from the Eastern Front to the West Wall in November, struggled to forget scenes of the horrific destruction wrought by Allied bombing raids in their homeland. On December 12, Colonel Kokott attended a final conference on the offensive at Hitler's headquarters. He returned to his troops rattled by the image of a Führer "in poor health and physically in poor condition." Fritz Bayerlein, commander of the Panzer Lehr Division, was well aware that his outfit was nowhere near full readiness. He had seen his armored force virtually destroyed in Normandy and had been forced to abandon its rebuilding when ordered to join a counterattack against Patton's Third Army in the Saar region just recently. One of his tank battalions was missing, as it was still being reorganized far to the rear. Most of his replacement artillery pieces had arrived without the towing vehicles – the prime movers. One battalion of infantry had no mortars and very few machine guns. Bayerlein estimated that his division was down to 60 percent of standard troop strength, 60 percent of artillery, 40 percent of tanks and tank destroyers, and 40 percent of other weapons.

At the same time, German troops took much courage from the quality and experience of the senior and junior officers who were to join them in the front lines. Not just von Manteuffel, but von Lüttwitz too, the commander of the XLVII Corps, was a dyed-in-the-wool professional soldier. Fritz Bayerlein, who had served under legendary commanders like Guderian and Rommel, brimmed with confidence and charisma. Kokott worried about the uneven quality of the replacement NCOs, but he was confident about his officers. "The regimental and battalion commanders," he noted, "as well as the company commanders were those officers who had proven themselves time and again during the Russian Campaign and who knew their stuff." Kokott also took heart from the fact that, although many of his infantry replacements were drawn from navy and air force personnel and lacked combat experience, he had seen for himself that they were "fresh, healthy young men of great willingness." Bayerlein, too, conceded that "despite inadequate equipment and practically uninterrupted combat," his armored force of almost 13,000 men demonstrated an "aggressive spirit." "Attack," he commented smugly, "suits the German troops better than defense." By mid-December, with each GI in the 110th Infantry's sector facing ten enemy soldiers poised for the attack, the odds were decidedly in Germany's favor.


The Americans of the 110th Infantry thought of their thinly held front line more as a ghost sector than a quiet sector. They were stationed in the less densely populated northern area of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg. Known to locals as the Oesling, the region was one of deep valleys, forested hills, and windswept castle ruins, which bore testimony to the long and turbulent history of a region wedged between armed European rivals. The atmosphere was made even more eerie by the almost total absence of civilians in towns and villages along the sector's front line: as the Allied offensive had come to a halt in front of the West Wall early in the autumn of 1944, the Americans had ordered them to evacuate, together with many thousands of other Luxembourgers inhabiting the forward settlements along the Our, Sûre, and Moselle rivers.

Exceptions were made only for a very few civilians with special passes, who were allowed to tend crops during certain hours. Lieutenant Thomas Myers was pleasantly surprised one day when at last he caught sight of three Luxembourgers in a field while on patrol with I Company in the village of Weiler. It had been no longer than three months since he had been rushed to Europe from New York on board a ship carrying some ten thousand replacements. In that brief time, he had first served as a replacement with the 5th Armored Division at the Siegfried Line near Aachen. Shortly after, he had been assigned as a permanent replacement with the 28th Infantry Division during the battle for the Hürtgen Forest. These had been jarring experiences, and the lieutenant ached for his wife and two-year-old daughter back home. He and his men halted to check the passes of the young man and his two sisters. Lieutenant Myers was happy to strike up a conversation with people not wearing a uniform for a change. But the language barrier made any meaningful exchange of thoughts difficult. The Americans made up for it by generously handing out army ration chocolate bars – D bars – and chewing gum. Lieutenant Myers was intrigued when the elder girl walked away, beckoning him to follow her to a corner of the field. The young woman invited him to sit down. She took a thick sandwich of homemade bread and bacon from a lunch basket. Then she joined him on the ground, handed him a large piece of the sandwich, and encouraged him to tell her more about his family and life in America. The lieutenant never forgot the woman's kind gesture.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from Those Who Hold Bastogne by Peter Schrijvers. Copyright © 2014 Peter Schrijvers. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Maps ix

Introduction 1

1 Lives for Time 8

2 Locking Shields 28

3 Locking Horns 56

4 Trapped 84

5 The Skin of Their Teeth 119

6 To the Rescue 134

7 A Clash of Wills 168

8 New Year's Woes 201

9 The Longest Road 228

Epilogue 251

Cast of Characters 255

Notes 260

Bibliography 282

Illustration credits 294

Acknowledgments 295

General Index 297

Index of Military Units 305

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