World War II in Europe

The Romanian Air Force

A Romanian fighter pilot about to sortie in an I.A.R. 81 on May 16, 1944.

A Romanian fighter pilot about to sortie in an I.A.R. 81 on May 16, 1944.

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Romanian ground crews bomb up an awaiting Junkers Ju-88 on the Eastern Front in January 1944.

When the Axis invasion of Russia began in 1941, the Romanian Air Force totaled about six hundred aircraft. In the early phases of the war, the Romanian Air Force flew an unusual collection of British, French, Polish and German-designed aircraft, including the Heinkel-112 fighter that never saw widespread use with the Luftwaffe. Gradually, the British and French-built aircraft were replaced with more modern German fighters and bombers, including the Junkers Ju-88, the Heinkel He-111 and the legendary Junkers Ju-87 Stuka. The Romanians acquired about a hundred and fifty Stukas and used them on the Eastern Front all the way through the 1944 campaign to provide close air support to Axis units.

Some of the Romanian fighter squadrons were equipped with the I.A.R.-80 and 81, a homegrown design capable of speeds up to 350 mph. Rounding out the fighter force were German-supplied Messerschmitt Bf-109’s. Romanian fighter pilots were well-trained and quite capable. During three years of fighting, they claimed over two thousand aerial victories, and several of their aces were credited with sixty kills or more. The USAAF encountered Romanian interceptors many times during the 15th Air Force’s campaign against the Ploesti oil fields.

A Romanian Ju-87 squadron prepares for a mission on the Eastern Front in November 1943.

A Romanian Ju-87 squadron prepares for a mission on the Eastern Front in November 1943.

In August 1944, a coup toppled the pro-Axis government and Romania switched sides. With USAAF support, the Romanian Army held off a German attack against their capital. Fighting raged between once close-Allies as the Romanian Army later went on the offensive and drove the Wehrmacht away from the vital oil fields around Ploesti. By the time the war ended the following spring, the Romanian Army had captured over 50,000 German troops. These POW’s were turned over to the Red Army, where they suffered through years of captivity in Siberia.

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An I.A.R.-81 pilot receives a bit of help climbing into the cockpit before a sortie against the Russians on the Eastern Front, December 9, 1943.

In an ironic twist, the Romanian Air Force’s final kill took place between one of its Messerschmitt Bf-109G’s and a Luftwaffe 109K. When the war ended, the Romanians continued to use their 109’s for several years, and the I.A.R.-81’s remained in front line service until 1948. Gradually, though, the wartime aircraft they had acquired gave way to a Soviet-sponsored modernization program. Today, the Romanian Air Force flies an interesting mix of both NATO and Russian aircraft, and is on tract this year to receive its first batch of F-16 fighters.

 

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Lend Lease Wings

A formation of Brewster Bermuda dive bombers on a training flight. The aircraft never saw widespread service as a result of its mediocre performance.

A formation of Brewster Bermuda dive bombers on a training flight. The aircraft never saw widespread service as a result of its mediocre performance.

During the Second World War, the United States produced thousands of aircraft, guns, artillery, vehicles and ships that its armed forces never used. Instead, these weapons from the great “Arsenal of Democracy” were sent to other Allied nations fighting desperately to stem the tide against the Axis Powers. Well known are the Bell P-39 Airacobras that reached Russia and performed excellent duty as ground attack aircraft. The P-51 Mustang, the F4U Corsair, Grumman F4F Wildcat, the TBM Avenger all served in with the British Fleet Air Arm or Royal Air Force, as well as in other Allied nations during the war.

But some lesser known types were sent overseas as part of the Lend Lease effort. Perhaps one of the more unusual was the Brewster SB2A Buccaneer. Designed before the war as a carrier-based dive bomber, the British and Dutch were so desperate for such an aircraft that they placed orders for it before the prototype even flew in 1941. When it finally did, the aircraft’s performance proved to be such a disappointment that the contracts were largely canceled. A few Brewsters, dubbed Bermudas by the FAA, saw limited service as training aircraft and target tugs, but its role as a combat dive bomber had been eclipsed by better aircraft.

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Number 88 Squadron became the first Douglas Boston unit in the RAF. It began flying anti-shipping and interdiction missions in February 1942.

The British also used the legendary Consolidated B-24 Liberator, though not primarily as a strategic bomber but as a long range anti-submarine aircraft. And after the Fall of France, the Douglas DB-7 Boston ended up in RAF service flying low altitude, short-ranged hit-and-run raids against German targets on the Continent. The Boston became a mainstay of the RAF’s light attack units in 1942-43, equipping about two dozen squadrons before ultimately being replaced by the DeHaviland Mosquito in the later stages of the war.

A badly damaged British Liberator, seen here back in England after it had been struck by a falling bomb dropped from a squadron mate in mid-flight. The British largely used their Liberators as long-range anti-submarine and maritime patrol aircraft.

A badly damaged British Liberator, seen here back in England after it had been struck by a falling bomb dropped from a squadron mate in mid-flight. The British largely used their Liberators as long-range anti-submarine and maritime patrol aircraft.

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The Last Full Measure to the End

 

Medics of G Company, 87th Mountain Infantry, 10th Mountain Division, carry a wounded GI to an aide station during the fighting around Bologna, Italy on May 1, 1945.

Medics of G Company, 87th Mountain Infantry, 10th Mountain Division, carry a wounded GI to an aide station during the fighting around Bologna, Italy on May 1, 1945. This anonymous GI was one of the last casualties suffered by the regiment. The next day, the German forces in Italy surrendered and the fighting came to a merciful end.

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Joint Attack

US Army WWII Series M3 Stuart light tanks support Biritsh Army infantry Tunisia prolly 1943-1

Two American M3 Stuart light tanks support a company of British infantry during the fighting in Tunisia in early 1943.

 

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The Franco-American Air Connection

WWI Series USAAS Spad XIII with multiple sqn emblems 1918 (1 of 1)

By the fall of 1918, most of the U.S. combat fighter squadrons flew the French-made Spad XIII in battle.

In 1917, when the United States entered the Great War, the Army Air Service was a tiny, primitive and incapable force. In the span of a year, the AAS went from backwards and poorly equipped to a state of the art, modern organization that went toe to toe with the best aviators and aircraft in the world during the final months of the war. That incredible transformation only happened because of massive French assistance. The French helped train American aviators, provided advisors and equipped most of the USAAS squadrons that saw combat on the Western Front. That free-flow of knowledge, experience and material support laid the foundations for American air power.

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French Nieuport 17’s trained America’s first generation of fighter pilots.

In the early 1930’s, French military aviation was considered to be the most advanced in the world. But in the span of about five years, all that changed. The Great Depression hammered budgets, and poor policy decisions on the part of the French government played havoc with the French aircraft industry. Production rates plummeted. Suppliers and contractors to the major aviation companies went out of business. Construction techniques became outdated, and factories were not modernized.

 

 

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French ground crews re-arm an American-built Hawk 75.

 

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A French naval air force ceremony in front of an American-made Consolidated PBY Catalina.

As the threat from Nazi Germany grew, the French made a furious effort to modernize and catch up in 38-39 after watching many nations surpass their once great L’Armee De L’Air. While the nation initiated a crash effort to modernize and increase production of a new and formidable generation of aircraft, including the LEO 451 and the D.520, France turned to the United States to help fill the gap. American firms began churning out aircraft for the L’Armee de L’Air, including the Curtiss Hawk 75, the Martin 167 Maryland bomber, and the Douglas DB-7 (A-20 Havoc). The Hawk 75’s and Martin 167’s saw combat in 1940 with the French, but most of the DB-7’s ended up with the RAF after the Fall of France.

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A French Martin B-26 Marauder. Several medium bomb squadrons flew these in both the MTO and ETO.

In 1942, the U.S. began supplying the Free French with a whole new generation of fighters and bombers. French squadrons went into combat in the MTO and ETO in American-made Martin B-26 Marauders, Bell P-39 Airacobras and Republic P-47 Thunderbolts.

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French ground crews working on a P-47 Thunderbolt during the winter of ’44-45.

After the war, as the French sought to rebuild their military as the Cold War intensified, American designs once again played a crucial role in the L’Armee de L’Air until France’s aviation industry could get back on its feet. American F8F Bearcats, B-26 Invaders and jets such as the F-84 carried the French cockade through the late 1940’s and early 1950’s. That support helped establish  post-war French air power.

In the years since, French and American combat aviators have served alongside each other over Iraq, over Serbia and Afghanistan, carrying the hundred year aerial alliance into a new century against new and pernicious threats. I was fortunate to see the French in action while I was in Afghanistan in 2010. I remember watching two of their Eurofighters take off from Kandahar and thinking, The spirits of all those Spad and Thunderbolt pilots rides on their shoulders.

 

The birth of America's bomber force was greatly assisted by the French. Here, a Breuget 14 serves with one of the first bomber squadrons to see service with the USAAS.

The birth of America’s bomber force was greatly assisted by the French. Here, a Breuget 14 serves with one of the first bomber squadrons to see service with the USAAS.

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The 2nd Free French Armored Division

The 2nd Free French Armored Division comes ashore at Utah Beach.

The 2nd Free French Armored Division comes ashore at Utah Beach.

Perhaps no French unit achieved the level of fame during World War II that the 2nd Free French Armored Division did. Formed from about 15,000 men from different Free French units that had been fighting in North Africa since 1940, the 2nd included some 3,600 Colonial troops, primarily Moroccans and Algerians, along with a contingent of Spanish Republican volunteers. The rest of the division was drawn from French troops and citizens who had escaped France proper during the German invasion, or who had been out of the nation when the 3rd Republic sued for peace in June 1940.

Organized and equipped like a U.S. Army armored division, the 2nd included three tank regiments, a tank destroyer regiment and three mechanized infantry regiments, along with engineers, artillery, truck and logistical support units. The division employed M4 Sherman tanks, American halftracks, M8 75mm motor gun carriages and other American vehicles. The Soldiers were equipped with standard U.S. Army gear, including M1 rifles, M1919 light machine guns, etc.

The division rejoined the fight in July 1944 when it landed at Utah Beach. The 2nd was thrown straight into the fray and ended up in the middle of the Falaise Pocket battle, forming the crucial hinge between Canadian and American units. During the fighting that August, the French tankers and armored infantry all but destroyed the remnants of the German 9th Panzer Division, knocking out over a hundred armored vehicles and taking almost nine thousand prisoners. But by the end of the battle, the 2nd had paid a steep price–about a thousand killed, wounded and missing.

Another shot of the division's M4 Shermans coming ashore  at Utah.

Another shot of the division’s M4 Shermans coming ashore at Utah.

At the end of the month, General Philippe LeClerc, the divisional commander, was ordered to drive on Paris with the U.S. 4th Infantry DIvision. What followed was the unit’s most lasting moment. Fighting side by side with American troops, the Free French could sense their hour of redemption was at hand. They fought like banshees, pushing toward their capital with impassioned fury, taking heavy losses at times. Some five hundred more men from the 2nd were killed and wounded, but the division forced its way into Paris and accepted the German surrender. The moment triggered a national catharsis, with French citizens celebrating in the streets and showering the Allied troops with tokens of their appreciation. France’s national honor had been restored, but much fighting lay ahead.

The 2nd pushed on East, destroying the 112th Panzer Brigade the following month in a chaotic battle at Dompaire. They liberated parts of the Vosges Mountains and wrested Strasbourg from German control at the end of November 1944 in daring actions that later led the division to be awarded an American Presidential Unit Citation. During this phase of its combat career, the 2nd fell under the U.S. Army’s  XV Corps.

Paris, August 26, 1944. The 2nd Free French Armored DIvision's most famous hour.

Paris, August 26, 1944. The 2nd Free French Armored DIvision’s most famous hour.

An M10 Wolverine tank destroyer from the Régiment Blindé de Fusiliers Marins, 2nd Free French Armored Division, outside Halloville, France on November 13, 1944.

After Strasbourg, the 2nd was shifted west to clear out German pocket of resistance along the coast, but it was transferred back to the main front in April 1945 in time to strike deep into the heart of the 3rd Reich. Soldiers of the 2nd were among the first Allied troops to reach Hitler’s Eagles Nest, and ended the war in Bavaria.

From July 1944 through May 1945, the division suffered about six thousand casualties out of approximately 15,000 men. It was deactivated in 1946 after serving France and the cause of Freedom with great and courageous distinction.

 

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Photo of the Day: The 1st French Army in Action

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French troops and Maquis fighters, armed with British weapons including a Sten gun and a Bren light machine gun, cover a major intersection in Belfort, France during the battle to liberate the city on November 21, 1944.

 

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Vive La France Week Starts Monday

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An American paratrooper in Normandy kneels down to chat with two French children. June 8, 1944.

To all my readers and friends in France:

The recent horrific attacks in Paris underscore the nature of the threat we in the West face today. Al Qaida has not been defeated. The forces of Terror continue to deliver barbaric and sanguine blows across the globe–from the streets of Europe to the Syrian desert, to the mountains in Afghanistan. Now, more than ever, the allies of Freedom need to stand together as one.

From the earliest days of the American Revolution, France has been a loyal and trusted ally of the United States. Two hundred years of friendship and mutual dependence on our security have forged a unique bond. We are Brothers and Sisters–a family. Sure there are fractious moments, sure there are disagreements as every family will have, but in the end, our nations have always been there for each other.

1st Army NCO hands out candy to french kids during 4th of July in La Mine France 070444  (1 of 1)

The bond between the United States and France has never been just about policy or diplomacy. It is a connection between two peoples, bound together by a common heritage that includes the pursuit of liberty and human rights.

I was in Texas when the march in Paris took place. I wish I could have been there, walking in solidarity with the millions who believed free expression was worth the risk of another mass casualty event.

 

As I watched leaders from around the world, arm and arm, leading the way through the Paris streets, I felt a profound sense of shame that my own country failed France so thoroughly. Our President should have been there as a symbol of our commitment to France. Nothing can compensate for that error, but do know that Americans stand with you, and we will always stand with you in your most desperate hours. Over the last two hundred years, we have shed too much blood for each other’s freedom to do anything else.

To honor our Alliance, next week’s stories and photographs will be dedicated to moments in our Alliance.

 

Vive La France,

 

John R. Bruning

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French troops enter Tunis, Spring 1943.

 

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Photo of the Day

German Series WWII Barbarossa East Front  Russian T34 Wreck East of Njemen River Lithuania 062541 (1 of 1) During the Initial weeks of Operation Barbarossa, the German Army, and its Allies, discovered the Red Army’s tank battalions included some truly formidable armored fighting vehicles. The heavy KV-1 and KV-2 tanks proved to extremely difficult to knock out with available 37mm and 50mm anti-armor weapons, and in one case a crippled KV-1 and its crew held up a German advance for several days until finally destroyed in a scene similar to the end sequences of the movie “Fury.”

The Russian T-34 proved to be one of the best tanks of the Second World War and saw service in the Korean War, and later on even in Afghanistan during the 79-89 war. When the Germans first encountered the T-34 on the Eastern Front in the summer of 1941, it came as a profound shock. Maneuverable, well-armed with a 76mm gun, and designed with thick, sloping armor, it was virtually impregnable to German anti-armor weapons smaller than the legendary 88mm.

This T-34 was one of the first thrown into battle against the German Army. On the opening day of Barbarossa,elements of Army Group North advanced east of the Njemen River in Lithuania and ran headlong into a T-34 unit. In a fierce action that saw the Germans deploy 88s and 105mm howitzers to put direct fire on the T-34’s, some 70 Russian vehicles were knocked out. This T-34, photographed a few days later on June 25, 1941, was one of them.

The T-34 would go on to play a pivotal role in the Allied victory on the Eastern Front, and variants are still in service throughout the world today.

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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

 

 

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