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70 Years Ago Today

 John Buford’s Ghost:

Day One in the Ardennes

Photo 5M german ss patrol malmedy nazi going through barbed wireIn mid-December 1944, Lieutenant Colonel Robert E. O’Brian Jr. had a hunch. As commander of the 38th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron, he’d been tasked with defending the ancient city of Monschau, which served as an important part of the local road network. One north-south road passed through town, intersecting with an eastward running route that could take the traveler to Rohren (still held by the Germans) or southeast to Hofen and the 3rd Battalion, 395th Infantry.

O’Brian held an important part of the line, and his hunch led him to believe that the Germans might counter-attack him.  As a result, in the final days before Watch on the Rhine began, he kept his troopers busy digging trenches, clearing fields of fire, laying mines and trip flares. He brought in eighty truck loads of barbed wire and made sure that all of his platoons and troops were wired in tight. For additional support, he placed a platoon of tank destroyers to overwatch the main roads leading into town. His M5 Stuart light tank company covered the town itself and the route leading east, while his troopers dug in on the hills and slopes east of town, scraping their fighting positions out of hip-deep snow and frozen ground in places. The work was hard and rugged, but O’Brian’s men would be prepared. On the night of December 15, 1944, his troopers hunkered down in their holes, waiting to see if the squadron commander’s hunch would play out.

The venerable M5 Stuart light tank served throughout the campaign in Western Europe despite being undergunned and vulnerable to German anti-tank fire. This one belonged the 3rd Armored Division, and the crew is watching a German air attack on December 18, 1944, two days into the Battle of the Bulge.

The venerable M5 Stuart light tank served throughout the campaign in Western Europe despite being undergunned and vulnerable to German anti-tank fire. This one belonged the 3rd Armored Division, and the crew is watching a German air attack on December 18, 1944, two days into the Battle of the Bulge.

Across No-Man’s Land, the men of Sepp Dietrich’s Sixth SS Army made their final preparations for Operation Watch on the Rhine.

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Sepp Dietrich.

Sepp Dietrich was a street fighter. An NCO during World War I, he returned home and embraced the chaos of post-war Germany. He became one of the earliest Nazi adherents, and one of Hitler’s oldest confederates. As a combat leader, he was despised and derided by the blue-blooded Prussian elite that formed the nexus of the Werhmacht’s officer corps. They thought he owed his position entirely to his relationship with Hitler, and that anyone with his luddite level of intelligence was best left in the NCO corps, not commanding entire SS armies. Perhaps so, but the fact was Dietrich commanded almost reverence among his men. Time and again, he inspired them with his front-line example as well as his refusal to live better than they did. He shared their hardships and privations, and the Waffen-SS soldiers loved him for it.

But by 1944, Dietrich’s heart wasn’t in it anymore. After Normandy, he knew the war was lost, and Hitler’s insistence to continue it only got more of his men killed. After learning of Operation Watch on the Rhine that fall, he approached the Ardennes counter-offensive with a very pessimistic view of how things would go.

He was not disappointed.

The Sixth SS Army was supposed to attack after a heavy initial bombardment along a front that ranged from about ten miles north of Monschau south to the Losheim Gap. The terrain here was low and swampy—impossible tank country. Behind and to the south of Monschau stretched the high ground of the Elsenborn Ridge. That ridge was the key to the Sixth SS’s initial attack. Take it, and the roads to the south the panzers needed to get to the Meuse would be opened up. The Sixth SS Army had been assigned five main roads that would hopefully carry the panzers west to the Meuse River. Taking Elsenborn Ridge would open up three of those five routes to the river.Bulge534 14th CavGrp Camp

Dietrich assigned his LXVII Corps to launch the initial attack around Monschau. This would be the hinge of the entire Sixth SS Army’s assault, and was designed to protect the right flank of Dietrich’s main effort.

Originally, it was supposed to be carried out by the 272nd and 326th Volksgrenadier Divisions, supported by a battalion of behemoth Jagdtiger tank destroyers. Fate threw the first curveball of the game, though, when the Jagdtigers failed to arrive before December 16th. They’d been loaded aboard trains and sent forward. On the way, Allied fighter bombers shot up the tracks. The Jagdtigers could not get forward in time to support the initial blows. The volksgrenadiers would make their attack unsupported.

The LXVII Corps faced another problem on the morning of the 16th. The Americans had been driving forward with the 2nd, 9th, 78th and part of the 99th Infantry Division right on the north side of the Ardennes, intending to grab the Roer River dams before Christmas. Three days before the offensive’s scheduled start,  the 272nd Volksgrenadier divisions had been sucked into a furious house-to-house urban battle in Kesternich. Part of the 326th had to actually go and reinforce it, which bled away much of the corps’ initial strength in its own assault.

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An American 60mm mortar team in Monschau.

None of this mattered to the men in the frozen foxholes east of Monschau when the first German shells began to fall at 0530. All up and down the ninety miles Ardennes front line, over a thousand German guns roared to life. Everything from mortars to 14 inch naval guns rained high explosive death down on the American positions. Within minutes, the shells severed most of the communication lines that ran between the front line units and their headquarters, or the artillery units. )

Twenty minutes later, at Monschau, Sepp Dietrich’s Volksgrenadiers padded across the snow-covered forested hills and slammed into O’Brian’s defenses.  The American cav troopers were waiting, virtually unscathed by the opening bombardment thanks to their defensive preparations. In fact, O’Brian had ordered wire parties out to restore communications with their assigned field artillery battalions in the rear before the barrage had even ended.

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Lightly armed and equipped, the cav units in the Ardennes faced overwhelming odds in the first days of the Battle of the Bulge. These troopers belonged to the 28th Cav and are seen in Wiltz, Luxemburg later on during the battle.

They had not yet finished repairing the lines when the first Volksgrenadiers from the 751st Regiment slipped into view. If the 38th Cav folded, V Corps headquarters would be vulnerable to an attack from the rear and flank. It was a seminal moment for the American cavalry, and like General John Buford’s troopers on Gettyburg’s Seminary Ridge two generations before, they more than rose to the challenge.

The first wave of Germans reached the outskirts of Monschau and ran right into the waiting M5 Stuarts from F Company. The tankers loaded their guns with 37mm canister shells, and when they opened fire, the massed effect of these gigantic shotgun-like blasts tore apart an entire Volksgrenadier company. The survivors recoiled as their comrades, so vibrant a moment before, lay in gruesome horror around them. They left behind at least fifty, probably more like seventy-five dead and dying men.

The 38th Cav suffered seven casualties. Sepp Dietrich’s far north assault had failed completely.  

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A typical snow covered entrenchment in the Ardennes that December.

A few miles to the south, the 99th Infantry Division’s 3-395 had weathered a dreadful barrage that saw at least two hundred and fifty shells land in the battalion’s area of operations around Hofen. At ten minutes to six, the 2nd Battalion, 751st Volksgrenadiers, 326th VG Division charged through the morning fog across broken terrain and hit the 3-395 Infantry at five points almost simultaneously. The German main effort slammed into the junction between I and K Companies, which happened to be just east of Hofen. Without communications re-established with the artillery units in the rear, the battle that unfolded here pit a green U.S. infantry battalion against a green German Volksgrenadier Division.

The Volksgrenadiers surged for the American lines and ran straight into point-blank small arms fire. Some of the U.S. BAR men held their fire until the Germans were not even ten feet away from their camouflaged foxholes. The dead heaped around these positions, and some of the stricken grenadiers actually tumbled into the BAR men’s foxholes. Mortars shells fell and machine guns unleashed their fearsome destructiveness, and the grenadiers died in the snow. The attack continued, but each successive rush was stopped by American gunfire.

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One of the 99th Infantry Division’s defenders of Elsenborn Ridge.

At 0650, an hour after the attack began, the battalion restored communication with the artillery units I the rear. Within minutes, the forward observers in the trenches called down hell itself on the Germans. Multiple battalions of 105mm howitzers and the massive 155mm Long Tom cannons joined the battle.

The grenadiers attacked with desperate bravery, and in some places they made it through the curtain of artillery to battle the Americans with bayonets and butt stocks. The men of the 3-395 held firm, refusing to be driven from their foxholes even as heaps of German dead piled around them. By 0745, the attack had failed. Almost half the 2nd Battlion, 751st Grenadiers lay dead or dying in the snow. Photo 5O Bulge128 reloadM1deadGer83IDJan15

As the grenadiers withdrew and regrouped, they left behind over a hundred and fifty wounded men. Some lay as close as two hundred feet from 3-395’s foxholes. Throughout the day, they groaned, and cried out in agony, unable to move. In places, the lesser wounded men scrabbled through the snow to give what succor they could to their dying comrades. Here and there, a German medic would brave American fire to rush forward, administer some morphine and first aid. But there weren’t enough brave medics that day, and by nightfall, the moans and pleas grew steadily weaker. By morning, the battlefield was silent; the wounded had frozen to death. 

Excerpted from my book:

 

http://www.amazon.com/Battle-Bulge-Photographic-History-American/dp/0760335680/ref=tmm_hrd_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&sr=8-1&qid=1418765588

 

 

Categories: Uncategorized, World War II Europe, World War II in Europe | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Photo of the Day: Veterans

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These three Soldiers served with the 9th Infantry Division all the way from North Africa to the Battle of the Bulge. By early 1945 when this photo was taken, few rifle companies had anyone left from the original contingent that had gone overseas in 1942. Left to Right: 1st Sergeant Louis Cobb of Waysville, KY; Tech Sergeant Michael Duda, a native New Yorker, and 1st Sergeant Joseph Gravino of Newark, New Jersey. The photo was taken on January 8, 1945 just before the men received a furlough so they could go home. The three NCO’s met at Fort Bragg before fighting in Operation Torch together, then landing on Sicily. With the 9th ID, they served in the Normandy campaign, the breakout, the Hurtgen Forest, and finally the beginning of the Bulge. Few American Warriors have been part of so many crucial campaigns.

 

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Moments with the 379th

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Men of the 379th take a break to play football beside the flight line at Kimbolton in the spring of 1944. The shadow of what the air crews faced lingers in the backstory of the B-17 parked nearby. That’s “Pansy Yokum,” a Douglas-built B-17G that joined the group right at the end of Big Week in February 1944. On March 8th, it was hit by enemy fire during the Berlin Raid and one of the waist gunners was killed in action. Shortly after this photo was taken, this B-17 vanished on July 9, 1944. The crew failed to form up as the 379th assembled for the mission, but apparently the pilot, Lt. Hugh Frye, decided to press on. They either joined up with another group, or went off in search of the 379th. Either way, the Fort was hit by flak over France, limped back toward England, only to crash at sea off Le Havre. All nine aboard perished, including the 23 year old bombardier, Lt. Orval Epperson, a small town kid from Neosho, Missouri. He was his family’s only son.

In November 1942, the 379th Bomb Group was activated at Gowen Field Idaho, just outside of Boise. The crews trained incessantly through the winter and early spring, then deployed to England in April 1943. The group arrived just as the 8th Air Force was ramping up for the ’43 strategic bombing effort against Germany.

Men of the 379th entertaining local English kids and their families at Kimbolton. The B-17 was “Tampa Tornado,” a battered Fort that had first seen service with the 303rd Bomb Group before joining the 379th in September ’43. It was retired from combat service in October, and was the aircraft the group used for tours when civilians came on post.

 

Commanded by LTC Maurice A. Preston, a Class of ’37 graduate of West Point, the 379th was a sharp, well-disciplined outfit that would soon prove to be one of the elite groups of 8th Bomber Command. Preston held command until October 1944 when he moved up to take over the 41st Wing. He was a combat leader all the way, flying forty-five missions through the worst phase of the air war over Europe. He led the 379th during the August ’43 Schweinfurt raid, and returned to that city the following spring. He went on to have a very successful USAF career, ultimately commanding both the 5th Air Force in the Pacific and all USAF forces in Europe during the height of the Cold War.

The group performed so well in combat that it earned two Presidential Unit Citations, and was recognized for its bombing accuracy, low abort rates, tight formation flying and bomb tonnage delivered on targets. The aircrews pioneered new formations and new bombing tactics that were later adopted throughout VIIII Bomber Command, and completed 300 combat missions faster than any other USAAF heavy bombardment group in England. The group paid a brutal price during its two years in combat. Altogether, 141 of the 379th’s Forts went down over Europe.

 

“Lost Angel” returns to Kimbolton on April 10, 1944. This Fort joined the 379th in February ’44, and this crash landing was one of at least two crews of the group experienced in her. On September 28, 1944, Lost Angel and the rest of the 379th ran into scores of German fighters on a mission to Magdeburg. During the bomb run, another nearby B-17 (Queen of Hearts) took a direct AA hit that touched off one of its fuel tanks. As it fell, the tongue of flame it trailed engulfed Lost Angel so completely that the tail gunner thought their B-17 had been hit as well. He bailed out and was taken prisoner. Just after the bomb run, the fighters struck. Lost Angel’s navigator later wrote, “Most horrible sight I’ve seen. Sky filled with burning planes. Too many to count. Had to look away.” For details on that mission, see, “http://b17navigator.com/dads-log-book/mission-no-seventeen-september-28-1944/” Lost Angel was repaired repeatedly and sent back into battle. After the September mission, it was sent to the 384th Bomb Group. Miraculously, it survived the war, only to be scrapped in October 1945.

 

 

 

 

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The Men of Station 167

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The 381st Bomb Group’s O Club at Ridgewell.

In May of 1943, the 381st Bomb Group reached England. It had been formed and activated in January that year, undergoing a short, intensive training cycle that included a full formation leaflet dropping exercise over Denver. Led by the legendary bomber pilot Colonel Joseph Nazzaro, the 381st was a tight, disciplined organization. Nazzaro would go into combat for the first time with his beloved 381st, and his tenure with the group led to an extraordinary career that culminated with him commanding SAC in the late 1960’s.

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The 381st climbing out over the channel.

The group set up shot at Station 167, RAF Ridgewell in Essex. After a few weeks of settling in and local training flights, the group flew its first mission on June 22, 1943. Two of its B-17’s were shot down by flak and fighters on that first combat run, and two others came home battered and damaged with wounded aboard. It was a tough indoctrination to the air war over German-held Europe.381st bg b17  bomb loading aug 20 43721 4x6

The following day, the ground crews were busily preparing the Forts for their second mission when a bomb exploded on the flight line. The blast killed twenty four men, yet the 381st joined the rest of the 8th Air Force and continued on to fly that day.

During the August 17, 1943 Schweinfurt raid, half of the group’s bombers went down under the onslaught of determined Luftwaffe fighters and massive flak barrages. Ten crews went with those birds, but one crew returned home after being fished out of the English Channel. Colonel Nazzaro personally led the mission that day, flying the lead Fort in the formation.381st bg b17 sept 26 43 719 8x10

The 381st went on to fly a total of 296 missions–over 9,000 sorties against German targets. It came at a terrible cost–over a thousand combat crews went missing, were killed or wounded during those vicious two years of flying. One hundred and thirty one B-17’s belonging to the 381st never made it back to station 167, which represented roughly 500% of the group’s established strength.

The 381st over Germany, February 5, 1945.

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Twilight at Shiloh

Shiloh Deer

Twilight in late summer 2014, Shiloh Battlefield. This was the site of one of the critical battles of the Civil War’s Western Theater. The evening I was there, I was the only human on the battlefield. White tailed deer played among the unit markers, and a rogue bull showed up at the Hornet’s Nest.

The rail fence at the Hornet’s Nest. Contrary to many post-war accounts, the “sunken road” at the Hornet’s Nest was not sunken at all, but rather a little used farm path through the woods.

Standing at the Hornet’s Nest, watching the sun go down, I turned to see this guy staring at me from across the field where so many Confederate Soldiers perished. We gazed at each other for a long moment, and I was a bit afraid he’d charge me. (I was charged by a Moose in Colorado while working “Level Zero Heroes with Michael Golembesky). But right after I lifted my Canon to my face and snapped this photo, he lit off into the underbrush behind him. The park rangers had received several reports of him on the loose, and the next day they were out searching for him. I hope he got away. The world has enough steak out there.

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Photo of the Day: Marines in Action, Okinawa Spring 1945.

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