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Battle Of The Bulge
By Cole Barnard
Company B, 63rd Armored Infantry Battalion
|Cole Barnard retired from the State University College at Cobleskill in 1991 after serving as dean of the Food Service and Hospitality Division for 23 years. He grew up in Cobleskill, was drafted in 1943 and discharged in 1946. This article is adapted from an address Mr. Barnard gave the Cobleskill Historical Society on November 15, 2000.|
I see some people who I know pretty well have been through the same thing that I was through, and weíll see if I can do justice to what you went through.
The Battle of the Bulge was the largest scale pitched battle on the Western Front during World War II. It lasted for 35 days and included over one million troops. I was a rifleman in Company B, 63rd Armored Infantry Battalion, 11th Armored Division, Third Army and we were brand new to combat.
An armored division in those days consisted of three parts: tanks, infantry and artillery. All of our attacks were in conjunction with tanks, a tank-infantry combination, and we were very mobile. All the artillery was self propelled and all the infantry rode in half-tracks, that is whenever we could.
The Battle of the Bulge took place in a section of southeast Belgium called the Ardennes. The Ardennes is wooded, rolling hills, lots of open field, and in appearance looks to me a little bit like the northern part of Schoharie County: small villages, woods and fields.
Why did the battle take place here? Allied armies had been driving across France all summer long on a broad front. We were attacking everywhere simultaneously. By the end of November, we had two very serious problems. The first was supplies. We could not keep up with the amount of supplies needed because, until the port of Antwerp was liberated in late November of 1944, all supplies came in over the beaches and through the ports in France, and were trucked all the way to the front. The army simply could not keep up with the demand for supplies. The second big problem was replacements. We had had big battles for the cities of Metz and Aachen, and the Huertgen Forest battle took a tremendous toll in infantry. Replacements could not keep up with the casualty rate. A decision was made that we would still make certain attacks but some sections of the front would remain quiet.
For quite a while, the Ardennes had been used by the German army to rest their combat troops on the Western Front. The American army began to do the same thing. We would shuffle divisions in and out. Brand new divisions were brought in to assimilate for combat conditions. Combat units were brought in for just a few daysí rest before going back to combat. So what we had there was about an 80-mile front along the Ardennes that was manned by only about three divisions. A normal division front is four to five miles. You can do the math on that one.
Military history shows us that ever since midsummer of 1944, Hitler had been planning a major counterattack in order to split the Allies. He hoped that they would sue for a separate peace. He had been building divisions secretly, stationing them west of the Rhine River and planning this major attack. One of the military historians called this 80-mile front, and the shuffling in and out of divisions, a "calculated risk".
Military history shows us a third thing. Back in 1940 when Hitler overran France, Belgium and Holland, the Ardennes was his route of attack.
Well, on December 16th, 1944, our division was transferred from England to Cherbourg. France, and more importantly, Hitler launched his attack. He launched the attack with four Panzer corps, 1,200 tanks and about 250,000 troops against the 80-mile front, thinly held with only three divisions. And I know one of you in the room was involved in this.
On the 16th, one of the divisions in the northern part was the 106th Infantry. They had been brought to England in late November and the first week in December were shipped to the continent and trucked immediately to the section of the Ardennes known as the Schnee Eifel. Schnee Eifel is a very hilly part of Belgium. Ridge lines extend almost into Germany and the 106th Division was stationed there for a few days prior to the attack.
When the attack took place, it was a complete surprise to the American army. It was an overwhelming kind of situation. Some troops fought until they were overwhelmed, some troops were overwhelmed before they could fight, and some troops just abandoned their equipment and took off for the rear. By the 17th of December, the Schnee Eifel was isolated and on the 20th, the Germans forced the surrender of two entire regiments of the 106th Division, some 7,000 men.
The Germans proceeded on toward Malmedy and captured an artillery unit, lined them up in the field, and executed all of them. The killing came out in the papers as the Malmedy Massacre. In the north at about the same time, First Army had started an attack toward the Roer River dams. The 2nd Division and the 99th Division were involved in that attack. By the end of the 17th, the attack was canceled and the two divisions put on the defensive, which they pretty much were anyway in view of the onslaught that was taking place. When they fell back and right along the Elsenborn Ridge, they were able to create a defensive line and begin to hold the German onslaught from going north.
There are some interesting aspects to the attack and one of them was that Hitler had created a special brigade which would go along with the lead elements of the attack, get behind our lines, and capture the Meuse River bridges so they could hold those until the rest of the troops got up there. This brigade was outfitted with all captured American and British tanks. They had all captured American weapons and were all dressed in American uniforms.
The second aspect of their attack was the formation of commando units. The commando units were four men in a jeep, again outfitted with American weapons and American uniforms. One man in each jeep spoke excellent English. Their objective was again to get behind our lines, change road signs, change signs that indicated mine fields, find strong points behind our lines that they could radio back the information, and generally create confusion in an already confusing situation when our troops were falling back and fighting for their lives under the overwhelming force of the German attack.
Another aspect of the German attack was a drop of paratroopers. Paratroopers were dropped in the northern part in an effort to block the highways and prevent reinforcements from coming to the south. However, the wind was so strong that very few of the paratroopers reached their rendezvous point. Most of them were captured by elements of the First Army and the Ninth Army up in the north. Some of the commando units, not very many of them, did get through but history shows that some did and some were captured, and of course some told interrogators what their mission was. When that information was spread throughout the American army, it created a tremendous amount of confusion.
The special brigade was not very effective, as it turned out. History shows us that they got bogged down and did not get through to capture any of the Meuse River bridges. But all three of these things, the paratroopers, the commando units and the special brigade in American uniforms, had a psychological effect that was far greater than the military had ever thought it would be.
The rumors spread. Every vehicle was stopped at gun point and the occupants questioned with all kinds of American trivia to make them prove that they were GIs and not Germans in American uniforms, so it created a lot of confusion in the rear elements.
The Elsenborn Ridge line was reinforced by the 1st Infantry Division and it was successful in preventing the Germans from going northwest. Somewhere between Stavelot and Spa was a huge gasoline dump, which the Germans needed badly. Some 2 million gallons of gasoline were stored there, but the defenders of that area poured thousands of gallons of gas down the highway leading to it, and ignited it. That prevented the Germans from getting up in that area. There was a tremendous battle at Trois Ponts, but again the line held and they were unable to go further.
In the south, they had a little bit more success. I think I forgot to mention that the weather was in the favor of a German attack for the first six days. It was bitter cold, it was snowing, it was very foggy, and our air force was completely grounded for the first six days. We had no air help whatsoever. In the south, the route of the attack went toward Bastogne which was a vital road net. On the 17th, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower ordered the 101st Airborne Division to Bastogne, to set up defensive positions. They set up their positions and on about the 18th, the German army ran by both sides and headed on west. They completely surrounded Bastogne and made some effort to capture the city, but not a great effort until later on.
After we landed at Sherbourg on the 17th, we were ordered east to the Meuse River to take up defensive positions. After driving some 700 miles across France, we arrived on the Meuse and took up our defensive positions, on about the 22nd of December, west of the "Bulge". It was then that the weather cleared and the air force could take off. Fighter-bombers could begin to strafe and bomb the German advance. When we were on the Meuse River, we witnessed what seemed like hundreds of C-47 cargo planes going overhead, and it turned out that they were going to Bastogne to drop very much-needed supplies, medical, ammunition and everything else that they were running short of. It was quite a sight. I remember the thunder was so loud it almost shook the ground when those planes were going overhead, because they werenít very high.
By the 22nd, Bastogne had become kind of a thorn in the side of the German advance and they demanded the surrender of all troops in Bastogne. That resulted in probably the greatest reply of the war when General Anthony McAuliffe told them "Nuts!" and the 101st fought on.
After the air force began to take the air and bomb and strafe, the German penetration began to stop. They advanced as far as Celes, which was about 50 miles from where the attack had started, and that was the deepest penetration that they made.
When Hitler realized that his attack had bogged down, Bastogne became even more of a thorn in his side. By the 26th, he had ordered an all-out siege in order to take the city of Bastogne. On the 26th, the day after Christmas, we were ordered to move out from our defensive positions. We had been stationed there to defend that area, and particularly the Meuse River bridge that we had come over, and we were supposed to be the last ones over the bridge before the engineers blew it up, if it came to that. Fortunately it didnít. On the 26th, we were ordered down to the southwest of Bastogne, south of the Bulge in the Third Army area. The Germans had begun to move troops from the northern part toward Bastogne to make a major all-out attack.
Third Army, on the 26th, had finally punched a hole into Bastogne. The 4th Armored Division from Gen. George Pattonís Third Army created a corridor for ground relief into Bastogne on the day after Christmas. It was at that point the Third Army decided to make a major counterattack and, at the same time, the Germans decided that their all-out siege on the city of Bastogne would start. On the 30th both attacks met head on.
On the night of the 29th, our squad had been assigned to guard the Battalion Headquarters tent. We were standing outside the tent and the officers were corning and going, and we could pretty well hear what was going on inside the tent. After all, it was just a canvas wall. We heard one officer say (and I can hear it clearly yet) "Is this being planned or are we just going to be thrown in." We knew that our baptism of fire wasnít far off.
Well on the morning of the 30th, before daylight, we moved from our bivouac area to the little village of Ramagne. We drove through that little village and started up a field where our vehicles dispersed, and we dismounted and got into our attack formation. Our platoon was the lead platoon that morning, and we started up over the hill and what we saw when we got up to the top of the hill was a great big wide field leading, oh, maybe about a half to three-quarters of a mile down toward another small village.
Our attack was in conjunction with the 87th Division and we had the 17th Airborne Division as a backup. The rest of the Third Army attack was the 30th Division, the 26th Division, 35th Division and of course the 4th Armored, which had already gotten that hole into Bastogne.
Well, we had gone down that open field toward that other village, maybe 250 or 300 yards, Iím not sure, when we came under a mortar attack and tank fire and we hit the ground, the snow at that point. It was bitter cold and there was lots of snow on the ground, and we began to crawl. In the mortar attack one of the men in our squad was not too far from me. A mortar shell landed right next to him. His body flew through the air and he landed right on top of me. There were several dead all around me and I remember looking back to the ridge line to see if one of the tanks would come over to give us some help. The tanks that had come over the ridge had already been knocked out and were burning, so we got no help there.
We lay in that field all day long. There was no artillery support and no more tanks were going to come over that hill. The only help that we got all day was a flight of fighter-bombers that came over and strafed the village ahead of us and dropped some napalm on some haystacks. They flew off and that was the end of that. Finally, at dusk, the order came down to pull back, and of course as soon as we started to move we came under another mortar barrage and suffered several more casualties while trying to get back over the ridge line.
We assembled again under darkness, moved to a different area and resumed the attack the next morning, down whatís called the Rechrival Valley. At the end of the day we had cleared the village of Rechrival, driving the Germans out of it, and were just beginning to dig in at the edge of the village along with our tanks. A favorite German tactic was to give up ground and then, before we could establish our defenses, they would counterattack, so we expected a counterattack and we got one.
I wasnít dug in very far. Some of you will remember this thing, called the government issue entrenching tool. If you can imagine trying to dig in rock-solid, frozen hard ground with this thing in order to dig a hole deep enough to get down into and get under ground, youíll know the trouble we had. We hadnít gotten very far when the first mortar shell came in. It probably wasnít 15 yards from me and it was a dud, it didnít explode. Almost immediately five more whistled in, all within 20 yards, and not one of them exploded. How you explain things like that is beyond me. One of the fellows who had gotten in had dug his hole a little deeper than I had was sort of sitting on the edge of it and one of these duds landed right in his hole, right between his legs. That scared him even worse than we were scared already, Iíll tell you.
WE had to advance through deep woods and knee-deep snow, with snow all over the trees, and of course our tanks could not go with us so we had to clear those ourselves. We decided to have the machine gunners hold the machine guns in their hands and plow ahead about 10 yards or so. They sprayed everything in front of them as they went and the rest of us would walk up to where they were and then we would repeat this performance all over again until we got through the woods and our tanks could rejoin us.
It was bitter cold. One night it was so cold that we were afraid weíd freeze if we stayed in the foxholes and so we stood up all night and we moved around a little bit, stamped our feet, and let me tell you when it gets dark at 4:20 the way it does now and doesnít get light until after seven, thatís an awfully long night. The next morning, of course, right after daylight, we started the attack again. Our canteens were frozen so we ate a lot of snow for moisture. Our rations were frozen. About the only thing we had to eat for several days were "D" bars, high energy chocolate bars. A lot of the times our overcoats were frozen from being wet with snow all day. At night, the fabric would just freeze solid. Kind of hard to wrap that around you to keep warm.
Let me give you some statistics from our battalion periodic report which covered the period January 1 to 3, 1945. Personnel casualties: officers, 1 killed in action, 2 wounded. Enlisted men: 17 killed in action, 15 probably killed, 53 wounded, 18 captured. Non-battle: frostbite, 31 enlisted men.
I remember one morning, one of the fellows in our squad came over to me and said "My feet are hurting so badly I just canít stand it anymore, Iím going back to the aid station." Thatís the last I saw of him until after the war, but it turned out he lost a lot of toes as a result of that.
Well, after several days of this we cleared and recaptured the area almost to the 101st Airborneís defensive line. On the night of January 11 we relieved a platoon of 101st Airborne troops and took over their foxholes in order to resume the attack the next morning. We got up to Bertogne and we drove the Germans out of their foxholes. At the edge of Bertogne, after a fire fight, there was a haystack nearby that a tank shell had set on fire. We all gathered around that haystack to try to get warm, but Iím afraid we made too good a target. We came under another mortar barrage. We got back into those German foxholes in a hurry and stayed there the rest of the night.
We advanced on toward Houffalize. Houffalize was the goal because First Army was attacking south from the northern perimeter of the Bulge while Third Army was attacking from the south. On January 16th we took the high ground south of Houffalize. We cleared the houses there, took some prisoners, and one of our patrols met the patrol from First Army and effectively pinched off the Bulge, at least the western end of it. The 16th was a red letter day for me as it happened to be my 20th birthday, a birthday I thought Iíd never see.
That didnít end the Bulge. We turned east at that point and continued the attack toward the German border. We captured the village of Buret on the 21st of January and at that point they put us in reserve. The Bulge was declared officially over as all the ground that the Allies held prior to the German attack had been recaptured.
When we were put in reserve, we got some hot food, we got new clothing, we got a bath for the first time since we left England, about a month and I donít know how many days before. We got our mail (all important mail call) and we also got the Stars and Stripes, the army newspaper. We read in the Stars and Stripes that what we had been through was being called the Battle of the Bulge. That was the first clue we had as to what it was. For the most part, the infantry didnít know where they were going or what they were doing or anything about any strategic parts of the war at all. We just went.
The Germans had made a tremendous gamble, which they lost. They committed some 28 divisions, about 500,000 men, and their casualties exceeded 81,000. We had committed about 29 divisions of some 600,000 men, and our causalities exceeded 76,000. Our squad had started with twelve men and there were just four of us. Our company had started with 250 men and there may have been 70. The distance from our point of attack on December 30 to Houffalize, where the Bulge was pinched off, the distance as the crow flies, is about 15 miles. It took the Third Army 18 days to go those 15 miles.
Every story ought to have some humor, but darned if I can find much. There was one incident, however, if it wasnít funny it was at least ludicrous. After about five days of combat, our company was pulled back in reserve, which meant that we were about a mile in back of the front. Far enough back so the kitchen truck could catch up to us and give us a hot meal and we got our all-important mail call. Believe me, that is what kept us going as much as anything: the letters from home.
We were parked in an open field and we could have fires, so we had a great big bonfire going, trying to keep warm. Of course you were boiling on the front end freezing to death on the back, but it was better than not having any fire. The captain had reassigned one of the company cooks to our squad as a rifleman and when he came over, he brought two big cans of pineapple juice with him. He mixed this pineapple juice with snow and, to give it the benefit of the doubt, you might call it sherbet. We stood around this fire eating mess cups full of pineapple sherbet and freezing to death at the same time, and nothing ever tasted any better
Well, I guess Iíve said about all I can say. After I was discharged in 1946, I got interested in the overall battle and I began to collect some books about it. If you have any questions. Iíll be happy to try and answer them and if I canít answer them, Iíll call on my friends that were over there doing the same thing I was, and maybe they can help me out.
Q. You didnít have any more army air support except for that one time after the weather broke?
C.B. That was about the only time I remember. Later in the war we had a lot, but during the Bulge that was the only time I remember the fighter bombers coming over.
COMMENT. I can verify one portion that you mentioned. On Christmas Day we woke up in the morning. We were out in the field, and it looked like a railroad track in the sky. The planes going one way and the return going back. As you say, it was deafening and every once in awhile you would see a big puff, and one of the those planes would disappear. Once in a while you would see a parachute come down, but not too often. To verify what you said, it looks just like a train track in the sky, one line going over and one line going back.
C.B. Yeah, it was so cold, there were vapor trails every where. In a way it was pretty.
C.B. This doesnít pertain to the Bulge. We were in the Siegfried line when this happened. We got a new company medic, platoon medic, and I donít think he wanted to be up front, most of us didnít. He said "the first thing I think I should do is check everybody for trench foot". So he had us all take our boots off and he checked everybody for trench foot. He made a heck of a long list of people that had trench foot and should be sent to the rear. Well the list was so big that their wasnít anybody left at the front. I saw our platoon sergeant later that day and I said "what happened to the guys that had trench foot?" and he said "Well, we sent the medic to the rear instead." He said "it was easier that way."
COMMENT. Tell them about your experience with the Russians afterwards.
C.B. Well, I donít know if I was one of the lucky ones or the unlucky ones. I went all the way through the war, before we met the Russian army in Austria. After we met them, the citizens of Austria were awful glad to see us, because they were just terrified of the Russian army. They had pillaged and burned and stolen and everything else. They pretty much lived off the land when they arrived. So they saw us as protectors.
There was a German hospital there, all the patients were Yugoslavian and they had been fighting on the side of the Germans against the Communists. The Russians were coming to harass the people in the hospital, steal supplies and so forth. They asked us to guard the hospital for them, and we did. Our platoon was assigned to do that. We had one squad there at a time for a couple days and then weíd rotate. When it came our turn, most of the Slav folks spoke good English. They had an orderly there that spoke excellent English. He told us they needed some supplies, I canít remember for the life of me what kind of supplies they needed, but he knew where they were. He asked if we could take the vehicle and go get them. At that time I was having fun just driving our half-track, so I said sure Iíll take a couple of the guys and you come along and weíll go get your supplies for you.
We drove off, and went to the area where he said they were; and when we got out of the vehicle, we were in the midst of a Russian regiment. It was their camp! They immediately surrounded the half-track, the accused us of being Germans in American uniforms and they wanted to see our identification papers. We said "We donít have identification papers, we are Americans." They didnít buy that, and pretty soon a colonel came out. He was a cartoon character, of what a Russian colonel ought to look like. He had a scar on his face, he was big and rugged, and just tough looking. The conversation was kind of hard to deal with because we couldnít speak anything but English. We spoke to the orderly who could speak English and he spoke to one of the Russians who could speak German and he translated to the colonel in Russian, so it took awhile to get this conversation back and forth.
It was getting a little hairy, because they werenít buying our story. One of the fellows said "I know what" and he went to the half track and got a carton of Camels and gave it to the colonel, and said "See we are Americans, see Camel cigarettes." At that point something convinced him that we were. The colonel invited us into his headquarters. He brought out some wine and he toasted Truman and so we toasted Stalin and he toasted General Patton and we toasted one of their generals and pretty soon we were toasting the Golden Gate Bridge and anything we could think of. Not to be out done, being good American citizens, we tried to keep up with them. Then he brought out some food. Food that we hadnít seen, and certainly we didnít think the Russian army had, but it was pretty nice. Pretty soon an accordion player and a guitar player came in and they were playing music. We convinced the colonel to do that Russian dance where you squat down and kick your feet out, and he did! We had quite a party there Iíll tell you. Iím not sure how I got the half-track back to the hospital. I still donít know until this day.
I do remember that as we were leaving the Russian colonel said he wanted to give us some of their cigarettes, so he asked an orderly, and he brought out a box. We put it in the half-track, said thank you very much and went on our merry way, really merry way. When we got back to the hospital one of the guys said "I guess Iíll try one of these things." He about died, I donít know whatís in there, but they are not cigarettes. So we gave them to the patients, the Yugoslavia patients that were in the hospital. They were in seventh heaven, they thought that was just tremendous, they thought they were great. Thatís the way that turned out. It was quite an experience.
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