September 1944. A mountain of documents related with the French Campaign in 1940 banks up on the major Percy E. Schramm’s writing desk. Major Schramm is the responsible of writing the war bulletin of the Wehrmacht’s High Command. Before wearing the uniform, major Schramm had been a teacher of contemporary history at the Gottingen University. He is a man marked in his personal affections: his daughter-in-law, Elisabeth von Thadden, had been executed for having expressed her disapproval to Nazism. But if even he now is a military in uniform, he has remained a historian. And as historian he wonders: why all these documents? The official version affirms: to prepare a celebrative publication about the victory over France in 1940 and to tribute to military genius of Adolf Hitler. “ Only” for this reason? And why in this moment, more than four years after that event?
A forgotten lesson.
The Summer of 1944 has begun and for Hitler it does not bode well. On the western front, the Anglo-Americans, gone out finally from the bridgehead in Normandy and closed ( but not completely) the Falaise pocket, are approaching the Rhine. On the eastern front, the Soviets, captured Belarus and entered Poland, are gathering to bring the final blow against Berlin. Antwerp, in Belgium, has fallen in the Allies’ hands, but the Germans are still withstanding in some zones around the Scheldt’s estuary and the Antwerp’s harbour can not be utilized. And in the same way, many others ports — still in German hands– on the Channel coasts can not be utilized
If the ports can not be utilized, the Anglo-Americans can not receive reinforcements and supplies at a reasonable rate. And without ammunition, food, fuel they can not advance quickly. Hitler wonders: why not exploiting this situation in order to cause a deadlock on the western front, in order to gain time and to try to overturn the situation on the eastern front? How can capitalists, communists and “waning” imperialists agree for long time? This is an alliance “against nature” : time and V2 rockets could make it fail. And if it fails, Germany stays alive. To his generals he says, more or less, this: “ If I, in some way, blocks the western front during the winter months, nothing and none will prevent me to dedicate my attention, hearth and soul, to the eastern front. And if am able to stop the Russians, the alliance “against nature” could collapse. But for getting this objective, I need time.”
On the western front, the Allies seem to have no intention of giving him time. But they disagree about the military strategy and about the political objectives. In addition, their generals are jealous one another. Only with an issue they seem to be in agreement: the Germans, by now, are on the verge of a complete collapse. A big mistake, in hindsight. From London Ultra informs: pay attention: the Germans won’t withdraw from the Channel’s ports and they will defend them to the last. For his part, an officer of the Staff, against the tide, observes: the foe is not collapsing, he is withdrawing in order, he is adopting a flexible defence, he seems to want to gain time. But the high commands do not listen to these observations. According to them, Germany will withdraw to defend her borders, beyond the Siegfried Line ( or Westwand). She can not act otherwise.
Why wasting, in fact, men and materials by defending , in Belgium and in France, places destined, sooner or later, to fall in enemy hands? With all evidence, they do not know who is Hitler. And, thus, instead of hitting hard, instead of trying to free the Antwerp’s port – vital for them–, instead of breaking the Westwand northward ( here, only on October 8, they will open a breach close to Aachen) and southward towards Trier , on September 17 the Allies send three airborne divisions ( the British First division and the American 82nd and 101st divisions) to try to conquer, respectively, the bridges of Arnhem, Eindhoven and Nijmegen in Holland, in order to allow the armoured tanks to enter Ruhr and Germany.
This is a Montgomery’s idea. In theory it could be a good idea, but in practice the operation fails. Market-Garden( this is the code name of the operation) is shattered on the “last bridge”, the Arnhem’s bridge. The Americans are able to capture their targets; the British, on the contrary, are unable to hold theirs, the only bridge of Arnhem.
Dropped far from the bridge, grouped and gone on march, the paratroopers of General Roy Urquhart are unlucky. They run up against the effectives of two German armoured divisions which are reorganizing in Arnhem after the Normandy campaign and the few tanks of those divisions are sufficient to stop the paratroopers armed only with light weapons and with completely ineffective 75 mm cannons. The bridge of Arnhem is reached but not held. The British tanks sent towards the paratroopers to close the operation, sink in flooded zones and are blocked; the supplies arrive by air into a huge mess and they fall, for the most part, on the German positions. When the Urquhart’s men withdraw ( many of them using small boats, a lot of them swimming across the Rhine) more than one thousand fallen and almost six thousand POWs remain on the battlefield. The British First division, in practice, does not exist anymore.
It is a remarkable success for the Germans, the first one after the defeats suffered in Normandy. And a lesson for the Allies. Thus, after the Market-Garden’s failure, they begin to clean , with a huge use of artillery, the Scheldt’s estuary; they liberate Strasburg, allowing French General Philippe Leclérc to pay his debt of honour( once, he had sworn to free the city); they head towards Aachen and send the Patton’s Third Army towards the city of Metz. In the meanwhile the bad season has arrived and, also because of the fierce German resistance around the Westwand, the military operations become slower. It is the moment which Hitler was waiting for launching his counter-offensive.
His is an ambitious plan. And top secret. So secret that it will be communicated to the senior officers only on the eve of its realisation. This is the idea: two armoured Armies, the Fifth and the Sixth under command, respectively, of generals Hasso von Manteufel and Sepp Dietrich, will go out from Ardennes , will head northwards, will cross the Meuse River and will reach Antwerp, cutting in two parts the allied front. The Fifteenth Army under General Guenther Blumentritt will support Dietrich on his right flank, heading north of Liege, while the Seventh Army, acting in the southern sector, will cover the left flank of Manteuffel, keeping contact with the front of the Mosel. Fallen Antwerp, blocked the main road of supplies, the Anglo-Americans would have had to stop for a long time and Hitler would have had at his disposal troops and time necessary to try to stabilize the eastern front. This was the reason why the documents of the previous German campaign in France were collected on the Major Schramm’s desk writing.
Possibilities of success? Very few. This is, at least, the opinion of the most part of the officers of the Staff and not only the opinion of the always sceptic von Rundstedt and of the crabby Generalfeldmarshal Model, commander of the Army Group B. Many things of this plan, in their opinion, sound wrong. For the armoured tanks, for instance, there is only fuel to reach the Meuse river. And afterwards? How will they be able to drive the almost two hundred kilometres to Antwerp? The times, moreover, are too short: reaching the Meuse in only two days seems impossible, also without considering the American resistance. And the aerial cover? If, because of the poor weather, the allied aircraft can not fly, will the German aircraft able to do it?
Even General Dietrich, faithful Nazi and appointed commander of the SS Sixth Army, is perplexed. He writes: what Hitler wants by me is, simply, that I cross a river, conquer Brussels, then Antwerp. And, in addition, in the worst season in the year, through the Ardennes where the snow arrives till the chest of a man and where there is no space to place side by side four tanks, imagine some armoured divisions. In a period of the year in which there is no light till 8 a.m. and the darkness falls at 4 p.m. and, in addition, with divisions which have been formed with kids and elder men. And in the proximity of Christmas.
Convinced for a long time – or, better, deceived by Hitler as well the Allies — that the offensive would have been launched into the Aachen salient and not in the Ardennes sector, the very worried commanders in chief, when they become aware of the plan, address a memorandum to Hitler, reducing the objectives. This is their proposal: instead of attacking Antwerp, it is better limiting the attack at few targets, the conquest of Liege, for instance, or the elimination of the Aachen’s salient. If the Allies gave up, but only in this case, conquering Antwerp could have been tried.
In respect to the Hitler’s “ Big solution” , coded “ Wacht am Rhein” ( Guard at the Rhine) , the Rundstedt and Model’s proposal — Nebelherbst, (Fog in Autumn) — is a “ small solution”. But, although “small”, it has the advantage of not ignoring a fundamental practical issue: the issue of the supplies. If the lines become too long, supplying the troops is very difficult and, without supplies – in particular, without fuel – the offensive is destined to fail. We will capture the allied oil storages, you say? Easy on the paper. But in practice?
Hitler, however, does not change his mind. A little bit because he lives in an unreal world, a world dominated by the force of willing more than by the force of weapons, and very much because he is wary of his generals, always ready, in his opinion, to “manoeuvre”, i.e. to withdraw. He replies: the Allies are not expecting an attack towards Antwerp and they will be taken by surprise. Has the allied Air Force the superiority in the skies? The poor weather will prevent it to exercise this superiority ( and would it allow the Luftwaffe to fly?). Our forces? I have gathered almost two hundred thousand men for this operation and we have a plenty of tanks and guns. The Ardennes? With their forests and their gorges, with their woods and their clefts, they offer an ideal space to deploy our troops without being seen. The foe? He has few supplies and has gone too much forward. He is vulnerable and if we hit him hard we can stop him for a long time.
Manteuffel, however, insists and, finally, he obtains some little modifications: for exploiting the surprise effect, the attack will start at 5.30 a.m. instead of at 11.00 a.m. ; the artillery fire will last forty-five minutes and not three hours, hitting particular targets( centres of communication, road crossings, etc. ); assault troops will be infiltrated amid the enemy forces in order to prepare the infantry’s advance. By Hitler’s decision, finally, the code name of the offensive is changed: not more Guard at Rhine, but Fog in Autumn.
About an issue, Hitler is right: in the Ardennes sector, the Allies are vulnerable. And they are vulnerable, because they consider it a secondary sector. Or because they think following the logic of the manuals and not following the Hitler’s logic, moreover difficult to be followed by everybody. And thus, instead of reinforcing the sector of the Ardennes, they deploy elsewhere the bulk of their troops and, on November 16th , they begin an offensive towards the Ruhr.
History is a bad teacher, we could say. The very fresh memory of the German armoured divisions launched, in May 1940, to trap into a gigantic pocket the Anglo-French at Dunkirk should have taught something. But it has taught nothing. In 1944, the Anglo-Americans seem to think that an attack — and in particular a powerful offensive — through the Ardennes is impossible . They make, in short, the same mistake made by the French in 1940.
There is a difference, however. In 1940, the German divisions were at full rank, well equipped, supported by the Stukas; four years later, they are for the most part incomplete, botched, still enough well equipped and without any support of the Luftwaffe. In 1940, the Germans brought a masterstroke; the blow which they are about to bring in 1944, seems a desperate flick of the tail. If executed well, it can have an initial success, but on the long run it can not last.
Night and fog.
Some days before the attack, the German radios are silent: no message, no communication, nothing. Fog is very thick and the allied search planes can not take off. Thus, perfectly undisturbed and far from indiscrete eyes, the armoured divisions take position on the Schnee Eiffel, the German side of the Ardennes. Some of them are powerful units, in particular the First Division, the Twelfth and the Panzer Lehr. Others, however, as we have seen, are not at full rank both in men and in armoured tanks; many others have in their ranks many “ethnic” Germans — i.e. Germans coming from the conquered Countries — which are now part of the Reich because of the modification of the borders. Many of these “ ethnic” Germans — from Poland and Czechoslovakia , in particular – use a poor German or they do not speak it at all. They are not motivated. In addiction, the Fifteenth Army – the Army which would have had to cover the right flank of Dietrich – has been sent, in a hurry, eastwards, where the Soviets are hitting hard.
The Allies are aware of the German movements. Before being forced at land by the poor weather, the pilots of the aerial reconnaissance have sight, on the snow , tracks of armoured tanks, camouflaged lorries, trains in motion. Some inhabitants of the border zones have reported they have seen troops marching in the Eiffel zone; some German deserters have confirmed these reports. But the information is not assessed in a right way. Even an order signed by von Rundstedt in his own hand and found into a pocket of the uniform of a German officer is ignored. For the Allies, all that movement has only an explanation: “playing down” the Aachen salient. Someone sees something strange in all those movements ( General Strong, for instance), but nobody listens to him.
Real Americans, fake Americans.
And thus, on December 16 (J+0) the armoured German divisions go out from the Ardennes and, at first, they seem to advance easily. In front of them, on a frontline that is longer than one hundred fifty kilometres, there are only four American divisions and a commander — general Omar Bradley — who does not think that that German attack is a large-scale offensive. Maybe that is a limited attack, as Bradley thinks, but to the GIs of the Twenty-eighth division it does not seem limited: hit by a storm of iron and fire, in fact, they withdraw in disorder. North, the 106th division is under threat of encirclement and only south the Firth division and the Ninth armoured division are able to face the Germans and to make their advance slower. But they are unable to stop them.
The surprise is complete, the mess is huge. Also because the American lines have been infiltrated by some German commandos. Some of them speak a fluent English, all they wear uniforms of the American Army and drive American jeeps. They are under the command of Colonel Otto Skorzeny, accustomed to the impossible missions and become a media hero since he has freed Mussolini from his jail on the Gran Sasso in Italy and has brought him in Germany. Giving fake information, modifying the road signals, making sabotages are their tasks. New Tom Thumbs ,they dot with white paint the houses and the trees along their way. Individuating them, however, is very difficult.
But — and this is an inexplicable contradiction — since some time, the Americans know their existence. They know, for instance, their recognition signals ( the colour of their scarves, how they use to button their uniforms, the letters stamped on the left flank of their jeeps); they are aware of their objectives. Even the place of their training has been photographed and publicized on Stars and Stripes. But, despite the evidence, nobody pays attention to this information.
And thus, in the days following the attack, because of this thoughtless action , thousands of “real” Americans are forced to be in alert, while the Company of the Captain Stielau — the only unit of the “Skorzeny Brigade” that is operating with effectiveness — becomes, day after day, passing from mouth to mouth, a “ division” and its eighty men become thousands of soldiers armed to the teeth.
Always more frequently, at the Americans checkpoints, the guards do not ask only the word check, but, in addition, they put some history and geography questions or they ask the rules of baseball or of American football. It is a way for unmasking possible German saboteurs. They, in fact, can know English, but not all the details of the American history and perhaps they ignore the correct American pronunciation of the word wreath.
Also General Bradley is not spared. At one checkpoint, a sentinel asks him which is the capital city of Illinois and, at the following checkpoint, another soldier asks him who is the husband of the actress Betty Grable. Bradley answers correctly to the first question ( Springfield and not Chicago, as perhaps a non-American would have answered), but he is unable to say the name of the husband of the fair-haired actress. The sentinel looks at him with an air of satisfaction and, content with having caught him in the act, gives him green light.
Elsewhere, an American patrol meets a group of artillery soldiers. They seem to be Americans. Before being questioned by the soldiers of the patrol, the artillerymen say to belong to E Company. Heard this, the patrol opens fire. Not the word Company, but the word Troops designates the companies of artillery of the light cavalry of the US Army. Who ignores this difference is not, can not be, an American soldier.
Among the Anglo-Americans the pressure is increasing. An improvised and botched drop of German paratroopers — baptized pompously Unternehmen Stoesser, Operation Goshawk ( the birds of prey are numerous in the Nazi terminology) — feeds the tension more and more. One tells of massive drops, when, in the reality, during the night between 16th and 17th , one day after the attack, only few paratroopers have landed beyond the Schnee Eiffel.
Also in this case, one tells of thousands of paratroopers in action. In truth, in the operations zone, some small groups of stragglers are wandering. They are without heavy weapons , they have few food and ammunition: their only preoccupation is avoiding the enemy patrols. Their commander, Lt Colonel baron Friedrich- August von der Heydte has freed some American soldiers captured in action. Come back to their units, these soldiers exaggerating the situation, contribute with their tales, to consolidate the fake conviction of a massive attacks of paratroopers.
And this is not all. To Skorzeny and to his group another impossible mission is attributed: “Operation Griffon Vulture” ( Unternehmen Greif), the task of which is kidnapping or assassinating Eisenhower. The allied Commander in Chief is the first who thinks impossible that mission, but he can not avoid that huge safety measures are adopted to protect him and his staff, secretaries included. Sometimes the war correspondents, kept without news by Eisenhower, react by imagining it. Reading the reports from Europe, the American public opinion has the impression to be on the eve of a new Pearl Harbor. In short, the political climate is not a good climate and, at the front, the nerves are too tense.
The road to the Meuse.
On December 17th , the day following the attack ( J+1), the Sixty-sixth Corps of Manteuffel arrives in sight of the crossroad of Saint-Vith. From here, a road drives till the Meuse, one time again the key of all battles. In the meanwhile, north of the crossroad, the SS First Division, spearhead of Dietrich’s Sixth Army, has crossed the Ambleve River. During its advance, it has surprised, close to the village of Malmédy, a column of American lorries, it has attacked it and has assassinated, cool blooded, the Americans who had surrendered. The news spreads as quick as lighting among the Americans and revenging the fallen of Malmédy becomes a moral obligation for the GIs involved in the battle and a further reason to fight fiercely. At the end of the conflict, the commander of the First Division, Colonel Joachim Peiper, will be accused of war crimes and taken to trial. And not only because of the crimes committed in France . Some months before, in September, his unit had set on fire the village of Boves, in Italy, assassinating twenty-three defenceless civilians.
The very poor weather in those early days grounds the allied aircraft, and the road till the Meuse – about eighty kilometres – seems empty. But it is empty only apparently. The Americans are continuing to fight and the conformation of the places prevents the Germans to advance. For these reasons, Peiper is often forced to change his direction, losing time and strength. For his part, the allied Commander in Chief, General Dwight Eisenhower, has resorted ( on 16th or 17th , the date is controversial ) to some counter-measures. Ok, the German attack seems to be a limited attack. But if it were not a local attack? Being prudent is better.
An thus, two first-class armoured divisions, the Seventh and the Tenth, are taken away, respectively, from the Ninth and from the Third Army and moved towards the flanks of the German attack. General George Patton, Third Army’s commander, deployed on the southern sector of the front and about to come into action in the Saar, protests strongly. According to his attitude, he speaks his mind. I am here, close to Germany, I can breakthrough and you makes me weaker, by taking away to me one of my best divisions. Is it sensible? But Eisenhower does not change his mind. Thus, when the Manteuffel’s Germans move towards Saint-Vith, they have to face the vanguards of the Seventh American Division and they are forced to fight harshly to open their own way.
And this is not all: north, the schedules of the Sixth Army’s march have been not kept. And they have been not kept, in particular, because of the sacrifice and the abnegation of the American isolated units, the fierce resistance of which has taken by surprise the attackers themselves. A makeshift unit , for instance, makes blow up a bridge which is vital for Peiper; elsewhere some batteries of guns are put in line. Exploiting a sudden improvement of the weather, an allied spotter plane sights the German tanks and it communicates the information to a Mustangs squadron, active in the zone. Other aircraft take off and, as long as the visibility allows the aircraft to fly, the bombs fall upon the Germans. While Dietrich is advancing slowly, Manteuffel, involved in the central sector, is advancing more quickly with the bulk of his forces and on December 19th his left wing is in sight of the town of Bastogne on the road to the Meuse.
At Bastogne an effective defensive plan lacks, but , once again, the German advance is slowed by the fierce resistance of some isolated American units. At nightfall, however, the Panzer Lehr’s vanguards are at about three kilometres from the town. They will never enter it.
Although armed only with light weapons and light artillery, in fact, the paratroopers of the 101st American Division, carried in a hurry from Reims to Bastogne, arrive just in time to block the attackers, giving in this way , time and hope to the town, to its garrison and to its inhabitants. At the moment, men are lacking to the Allies and, forced to decide where to use their reserves ( the airborne Eighty-second and the Hundred-first Divisions ), they have not chosen refined strategic solutions: simply they have sent them there where the danger is greater: northwards for contrasting Peiper ( the 82nd ) and, southwards, to keep under control the important crossroad of Bastogne( the 101st ). The commander of the Manteuffel’s spearhead Forty-second Army Corps, General von Luetwitz, when he becomes aware of it, comments: if the Americans use their paratroopers at Bastogne, it signifies that they are without effective reserves.
The paratroopers at Bastogne, however, are determined and ready to combat. There is no panic in the streets of the town and the civilian population respects the curfew and collaborates with the militaries. Food — for the moment, at least — is not lacking. According to the plan, Manteuffel , seen that the town is withstanding , passes on with the bulk of his tanks, leaving to some infantry units supported by some armoured units, the task to encircle Bastogne.
Counter-measures and second thoughts .
The breach opened by the Germans is still wide, but now the flanks of the bulge are withstanding, showing the effectiveness of the first measures taken by Eisenhower. On December 19th , he takes another measure: he divides the front in two parts( North and South), appointing Marshal Montgomery commander of the northern front.
Bradley takes it badly, Patton maligns in his own way and aloud about the exaggerate indulgence of the Commander in Chief towards the British, but the decision is not changed. The new commander of the northern front has to interpret the German moves: will they head to Liege or will they head straight to the Meuse? Montgomery — helped in his decision by Ultra — chooses the Meuse and prepares adequate counter measures: he orders to garrison the bridges of the river and he plans a flexible defence, into which the Peiper division, in action along the Ambléve, is the first to fall. “Monty” says to his men: let us pressure them, let us give them no rest and when they will arrive to the Meuse — if they will arrive to the Meuse — they will be exhausted and worn-out.
Von Rundstedt is, more or less, of the same opinion: we are advancing slowly, we have still too many kilometres to go , our soldiers are exhausted, many of them are inexperienced, there is a lot of difficulties, the fuel for our tanks arrives in dribs and drabs. Already on December 18th , he implores Hitler: we must stop. We have conquered ground, the Americans have suffered the blow, they, now, are farther from our borders. And he concludes: advancing further on is a dangerous hazard , we risk to waste our last forces. It is the return to the “ small solution”. But Hitler does not listen to him.
For his part, Eisenhower is optimistic. He says to his closest collaborators: the Germans, by coming out from their positions, have given an advantage to us: more they advance, less difficulties we will find and less blood we will pour for getting them to go out from their shelters beyond their Wall. As venomous as a snake, General Patton comments: “Hell, let’s have the guts to let the sons of bitches go all the way to Paris. Then we’ll really cut them up and chew them up!”
The bed sheets of Hemroulle.
The night between 21st and 22nd December, while Saint-Vith is still withstanding , preventing the junction between the Dietrich’s and Manteuffel’s divisions, on Bastogne is snowing. In the village of Hemroulle, held by the Americans, the bells are sounding the tocsin. The inhabitants of the village, astonished and very, very worried, gather in the square. An American officer is waiting for them. With a strange request. He says: the snow has made white everything and we have no mimetic suits to wear over our uniforms. We are forced to improvise them and, for making it, we need your bed sheets. When war will be over, we will return them to you. The inhabitants of Hemroulle delivers their bed sheets. Willingly?
The nuts of Bastogne.
On December 22nd , Saint-Vith falls. The surviving defenders withdraw to avoid the encirclement. They have not been able to hold their position. But their bravery has been paid: the German divisions are in a delay of five days respect their schedule. Dietrich, for instance, counted on the infantry to open, already on the first day, a breach for his tanks: he have been compelled to do the opposite. Accumulating delay.
And allowing the Americans to batten down the hatches. Once more, Patton is who must pull the chestnuts out of the fire. Part of his Third Army is to converge northwards, to attack the southern flank of the foe and to break the siege of Bastogne. Eisenhower fixes on December 25th the date of the beginning of the operation; Patton replies he will be ready on 22nd . Also if, for that date, all the forces involved in the operation( three Army Corps) won’t be in line.
On December 22nd , at 1.30 p.m., four German officers, protected by a white flag, are advancing in the snow. They are bringing an ultimatum. They say to the Bastogne’s defenders: you are encircled: surrender or you will be swept away. You have two hours of time for accepting our conditions. Think about it before answering, because the life of thousands of civilians is in your answer. At this point, General Antony MacAulliffe, commander of Bastogne’s garrison, bursts into an exclamation destined to become as famous as the Cambronne’s exclamation at Waterloo: “ Aw Nuts!” These words are written on paper and delivered to the Germans. The Germans interpreters , at first, are not able to understand their meaning. What have the nuts to do with the surrender of Bastogne? Then they understand: figuratively , Nuts signifies “balls”, bollocks”, and Aw nuts!, something like “ My balls!” The Americans, thus, have no intention to surrender.
But they are in many troubles. They are isolated and besieged, there is a bad weather, they have few ammunition, the supply lines do not work. For how much time will they be able to withstand? For their part, however, the Germans have not sufficient forces to launch the final blow. General Heinz Kokott had threatened the defenders, had threatened to raze Bastogne to the ground with his artillery if the Americans had not surrendered. But after the MacAuliffe’s answer the German guns remain silent. And there is no coordinated attack. Only some assault group tries to attack Bastogne. Routine.
How and by whom the deadlock will be broken?
On December 23rd , after days of snow and fog, the sky is clear. And the allied aircraft can take off. At 10.00 a.m., small units of scouts go down with the parachutes and land close to Bastogne. From midday to four o’clock in the afternoon, the gigantic C47s, drop, with high precision, on the besieged town tons and tons of materiel, from the ammunition to the K rations. The drops continue even on December 24, they are stopped on Christmas day because of the poor weather and begin again in the following days, this time, however, contrasted by the German fighters.
The intervention of the air force changes the game. Not only because of the lot of supplies dropped on Bastogne, but also because of the tanks hit by the aircraft, because of the convoys damaged, because of the roads heavily damaged. The allied aviators comment: “ The hugest hunting since the times of Falaise”. For his part, a German officers wonders, while around him everything is exploding under the bombs of the allied fighter-bombers , where are the Luftwaffe and the promised ( by Hitler) tactical aerial cover in the crucial points.
Sometimes, however, something goes wrong. Because of the fear of the presence of a Fifth Column and because of the rumours of fake Americans infiltrated among the lines, the allied aircraft , during three days, bomb the village of Malmédy, where there are “real” Americans and where the friendly fire causes a slaughter. An example among others of the mess of those days. George Patton, on the contrary, seems to have very bright ideas. Already on 22nd , with three Army Groups, he has made a perfect manoeuvre and has moved his units towards the German left flank and towards Bastogne. The task to reach the town is assigned to the Fifth armoured division.
Unlike Dietrich, Manteuffel has met a weak resistance and he launches his tanks towards the Meuse. An unit of his is around to reach the river. And at this point, according to the legend, Mrs Marte Monrique, owner of a lodging, changes the course of the events. When the German commander asks her how much far be Dinant, the courageous lady answers to him: “ A dozen of kilometres, but the Americans have mined every road.”
Concerned by the eventuality to have to go through mined roads or, more probably, intentioned to give rest to his men, the German commander stops in the surrounding woods, waiting for the arrival of all his effectives and of the fuel. He will be counter-attacked the following morning by a British unit and pushed relentlessly towards the anvil of the American Second armoured division. The Germans are arrived close, very close to the Meuse: they will never see it. And on Saint Stephen’s day , at 4 p.m. , the vanguards of the Patton’s Fourth division arrive in sight of Bastogne.
In the meanwhile, Montgomery has begun “to throw a tantrum”. On the northern sector of the front, the optimism of the early days has left place to caution. There are some fears and pessimism. Montgomery complains: the means are lacking , the effectives are less than foreseen, there are few reserves . Making the front shorter would be better. In this way, we could use better our reserves. And he adds: a sole commander is necessary. Whom is he thinking to? Bradley and Patton understand immediately and they breathe fire and brimstone. Who is he thinking he is? A sole commander? Sure, but if he is an American.
Also Eisenhower takes it badly. Is this the way for exchanging the consideration, the confidence and the received armies ( two) ? From Washington, the American Chief of Staff, George Marshall, is harsh. He writes to Ike: “ Go ahead and go fuck themselves..” Without having any intention, Churchill adds fuel to the fire. General Alexander — he says in Montgomery’s presence — is almost useless on the Italian front( a secondary front) and he would be more useful here. Why do not we call him here in order he can work together with Eisenhower? It would be a good solution, the winner of El-Alamein replies, but our officers and our soldiers would not understand. In reality, he is who does not like Alexander . Envies of generals, envies of “queen bees”, of primedonne.
While the Allies are glaring at themselves because of power questions and of personal prestige, in Berlin one is looking for solutions. And not only for military solutions. Hitler has launched a new offensive — Unternehmen Nordwind, Operation North Wind — in Alsace in order to support the offensive in the Ardennes. Manteuffel exploits the situation and asks free hand to exploit the still open breach to capture Bastogne and then to converge northward, on the flank of the American First Army.
On condition — the envies among the militaries are bipartisan — that he may have under his orders the Dietrich’s division. The SS under the Wehrmacht? Never. And, in fact, at first Hitler denies. Then he changes his mind and gives the authorisation. But it is too late. Patton has broken the left flank of the German deployment, the whole Fourth armoured Division has taken position at Bastogne. North Wind has never concerned seriously the allied commanders , and the Germans, short of fuel, short of food, short of everything, are withdrawing even from the Ardennes.
While the Germans divisions are withdrawing towards the Siegfried Line, curious rumours and strange – and sometimes, “against nature” – proposals are running in Berlin. The ex Chancellor von Papen says he is ready to open political negotiations with the Anglo-Americans ; for his part the foreign minister von Ribbentrop offers himself and his family as hostage and as guarantee for the beginning of negotiations with the… USSR.
Hitler replies neither to the first one, nor to the latter. He whished — the words are his — to exploit the long nights and the fogs of the Winter, for winning the desired victory. The Winter has brought nights and fogs to him in the skies and in the level grounds of Belgium, but it has brought to him, as to Richard the Third, an unspeakable discontent.
In 1944, the village of Hemroulle had few houses, a church and a Calvary of which it was very proud. Today Hemroulle has not its Calvary. It has not been taken away by the bombs, but by a promise. One day, after the war, at Hemroulle a distinguished man with a lorry arrived . He was coming from afar to extinguish a debt: he was coming to return to the women of the village the bed sheets from which the men of his unit, in December 1944, had obtained makeshift mimetic suits for continuing to fight against the Germans. The inhabitants of Hemroulle remained astonished. And they returned the gift.
Thus, because of simple gratitude, the panels of the Calvary of their village took the way to the United States of America.
In Autumn, snow and cold, fog and silence are the masters of Bastogne. Not today. Today one dances and sings; today bottles of wine are uncorked; today the Lord is thanked. The children, finally returned to their dreams, are playing with snow, are opening their eyes to the multicolour lights which are shining into the rooms, are observing the women who are preparing cakes, are waiting for the Mass. The young girls pass a shadow of lipstick on their lips and take out of their wardrobes their best dress. The men are smoking or talking, are drinking and commenting in small groups or in more numerous groups. The mayor, Lèon Jacquin, is doing the honours. The war is over, Bastogne wants to return to live. And it wants to return to live by celebrating a typical fruit of the Bastogne’s Autumn. A fruit linked, indirectly, with the terrible days of the Autumn 1944, when, on the proximity of Christmas, the Germans arrived. And when , into the little town, civilians and militaries, men and women, elder men and kids, found the strength to withstand.
Even today, at Bastogne, that feast is the feast of the walnuts.
Aw nuts !
The events at a glance
September , 3 ,1944: Hitler orders his men to defend till the last man Boulogne, Dunkirk, Calais and the Scheldt’s estuary, in Belgium, where the Germans are controlling two strategic points: the island of Walcheren and the island of Breskens, both able to avoid the Allies using the very important harbour of Antwerp.
September, 5: the Combined Committee of the allied secret Services considers that on December 1st the German resistance will have arrived to an end. This wrong assessment will have many repercussions on the conduct of the warfare. On the same day, radio Brussels broadcasts the ( fake) news of the surrender of Germany.
September, 8: two flying bombs V2 fall on the London outskirts, causing three dead.
September, 12: the German garrison at Le Havre, important harbour on the Channel, surrenders.
September, 16: the Allies reach and besiege Dunkirk. Hitler communicates to General Jodl, Chief of Staff of the OKW( Oberkommando der Wehrmacht) and to General Guderian, Chief of Staff of the OKH( Oberkommando des Heeres), his intention to launch an offensive on the western front, passing through the Ardennes and having Antwerp as target.
September, 17: in the attempt to enter Ruhr through Holland, the Allies launch the Operation Market-Garden. Three airborne divisions are to reach the bridges of Eindhoven, Nijmegen and Arnhem in Holland, to hold them for allowing the armoured columns to use them for entering Germany. The failed capture by the British of the bridge of Arnhem jeopardizes the success of the operation.
September 19: the Americans capture the French port of Brest, in Brittany.
September, 22: Boulogne surrenders to the Canadians.
October, 9: American forces encircle the German city of Aachen, situated very close to Belgian border.
October 13: a German V2 strikes Antwerp. Thirty-two civilians die.
October, 19: after a seven day siege and after very harsh fights road to road, the Americans conquer Aachen.
November, 1: supported by an impressive aerial deployment, British troops cross the Scheldt to capture the Walcheren Islands and to gain the control of both the banks of the river.
November, 4: while the battle for the Walcheren is being fought, a British minesweeper sails the whole river’s estuary, from the sea to Antwerp.
November, 7: Franklin Delano Roosevelt is elected for the fourth time President of the United States of America.
November, 8: Canadian troops end the conquer of the Walcheren Islands.
November, 10: in Antwerp is created a special artillery unit with the task to intercept the German flying bombs when they are still far from the city. The unit succeeds with the V1s, but not with the supersonic V2 rockets.
November, 16: in Antwerp the German V2 rockets caused two hundred sixty-three civilian victims, included thirty-two nuns, whose convent is hit by the bombs.
November ,20: Hitler leaves his HQ in eastern Prussia and the “Den of the wolf” ( Wolfschanze) of Rastenburg — from which the Red Army is far less than eighty kilometres — and comes back to Berlin.
November, 22: the village of Saint-Diè, in the Vosges, is reached by the Americans.
November, 23: the Second Armoured French Division under command of General Philippe Leclérc enters Strasburg. Years before, when the Germans seem be unstoppable, Leclérc had sworn to enter Paris as a winner and to free Strasburg. He has maintained his promise.
November, 25: the city of Metz is conquered by the Third American Army, under command of General George Patton. A V2 falls on the Woolworth Stores in London causing a slaughter of civilians.
November, 26: a convoy of allied ships reaches Antwerp. Himmler is appointed commander of the German troops in Upper Rhine .
November, 27: in Antwerp one hundred thirty-six civilians and twenty one militaries die because of a V2.
November, 30: the Americans move towards the Saar.
December, 12: Hitler reveals to his generals his intention to make fail the “against nature” alliance among British, Americans and Soviets. While Hitler is speaking with his officers, American units reach the town of Dueren, situated less than forty kilometres from Cologne.
December, 16: the German offensive through the Ardennes ( improperly defined by the Allies “Von Rundstedt’s offensive”) begins. The Fifth and the Sixth Armies advance suddenly and the Americans are taken completely by surprise. In Antwerp a V2 bomb causes the death of more than five hundred civilians. In those terrible days of Winter 1944, more than three thousand five hundred civilians and seven hundred militaries will die or will be wounded by the German flying bombs.
December, 17: seventy- two American soldiers surrendered at Malmédy are killed, cool blooded, by the SS of Colonel Joachim Peiper. In the following days, there are similar episodes. At Stavelot, the Peiper’s unit kills one hundred and thirty civilians, included forty-seven women and twenty-three kids. In retaliation, Americans soldiers shoot twenty-one German soldiers, captured at Chenogne.
December, 20: German infantry units ( Volksgrenadieren, Grenadiers of the people) supported by some armoured units siege the town of Bastogne.
December, 22: Feldmarshal Gerdt von Runstedt, German commander of the western front( OB West) asks for the second time Hitler in order to stop the advance towards the Meuse: the soldiers are exhausted, the resistance is fierce, the fuel is lacking. Hitler denies.
December, 22: General Dwight Eisenhower , allied Commander in Chief of the western front, publicizes the following communicate: “ Let everyone hold before him a single thought- to destroy the enemy on the ground, in the air, everywhere. Destroy him!”
With a masterful manoeuvre, General Patton moves his Divisions towards the southern German flank and towards Bastogne.
December, 23: the mist has dissolved and the allied Air Force can fly. The roads of communication, the concentrations of troops, the centres of command are struck. Bastogne is supplied by air.
December, 24: the Germans tanks, by now close to the Meuse, are stopped by allied fighters, by the lacking of fuel and by… Mrs Marte Monrique.
December, 26: the Patton’s vanguards arrive in sight of Bastogne.
January, 1st 1945: the Germans, heavy attacked on their left flank abandon the key positions of Moircy, Tenneville and Chenogne. On the same day, in Alsace, the operation North Wind, launched by Hitler to make better the situation in the Ardennes, suffers a terrible blow: the offensive of the 19th German Army is stopped. The casualties are huge.
January, 6: last German attempt in the Ardennes: Manteuffel moves against Bastogne and the northern flank of the allied deployment. The attack is repelled.
January, 14: Bastogne is freed. The Germans withdraw beyond the Westwand.
Here a selected bibliography
And here an animated map of the battle
Here a map of the battle.