Patton at the Battle of the Bulge: How the General's Tanks Turned the Tide at Bastogne

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9780451467874: Patton at the Battle of the Bulge: How the General's Tanks Turned the Tide at Bastogne

December 1944. For the besieged American defenders of Bastogne, time was running out....

Hitler’s forces had pressed in on the small Belgian town in a desperate offensive designed to push back the Allies, starting the Battle of the Bulge. So far the U.S. soldiers had managed to repel waves of attackers and even a panzer onslaught. But as their ammunition dwindled, the weary paratroopers of the 101st Airborne could only hope for a miracle—a miracle in the form of General George S. Patton and his Third Army.

More than a hundred miles away, Patton, ordered to race his men to Bastogne, was already putting in motion the most crucial charge of his career. Tapped to spearhead his counterstrike against the Wehrmacht was the 4th Armored Division, a bloodied but experienced unit that had fought and slogged its way across France. But blazing a trail into Belgium meant going up against some of the best infantry and tank units in the German Army. Failure to reach Bastogne in time could result in the overrunning of the 101st—a catastrophic defeat that could turn the tide of the war and secure victory for the Nazis.

In Patton at the Battle of the Bulge, Army veteran and historian Leo Barron explores one of the most famous yet little told clashes of the war, a vitally important chapter in one of history’s most legendary battles.

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About the Author:

Leo Barron works for General Dynamics as an instructor of military intelligence officers for the U.S. Army. He holds undergraduate and graduate degrees in history and has served with the 101st Airborne. Barron has seen two tours of active duty in Iraq as an infantry and intelligence officer. His articles about Bastogne and other WWII-related military topics have appeared in Infantry Magazine, Military Intelligence Professional Bulletin, WWII History Magazine, and WWII Magazine. He has used some of his research on Bastogne and the Christmas battle to teach his students about intelligence preparation of the battlefield. He is also the author of No Silent Night: The Christmas Battle for Bastogne.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

PREFACE

 

The Battle of the Bulge, fought between December 16, 1944, and January 25, 1945, was the bloodiest month in the United States Army’s history. The U.S. Army in Europe sustained 77,726 casualties in December, and incurred a further 69,119 casualties in January. In December, 15,333 soldiers and airmen lost their lives, and January was not much better: An additional 12,190 soldiers and airmen perished. In total, in those two months our country sustained 146,845 casualties, and of those, 27,523 were deaths. Most of those occurred in that forty-day period when Germany and the United States were locked in the largest battle of the Western Front.

In contrast, in July 1863, the month of Gettysburg and Vicksburg, our country, both North and South, suffered 120,426 casualties combined. In fifty-one days, from May through June 1864, when the battles of the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Courthouse, and Cold Harbor raged, the butcher’s bill was 146,046 casualties. The only other bloodletting that came close to the Bulge’s total was during the forty-seven days of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive in October and November 1918, when the U.S. Army Expeditionary Force lost 122,063 men, and of those, 26,277 were deaths.

In short, the Battle of the Bulge was truly a national sacrifice, on par with the battles of Gettysburg and the Meuse-Argonne. Citizens of Belgium and Luxembourg still remember our sacrifice and annually commemorate the events of those dark days.Yet many of our own students know little about the Bulge. Their lack of historical appreciation is the number one reason why I chose this subject.

Yet it is not the only reason. The Bulge and the Siege of Bastogne are also compelling stories. When Don Cygan and I decided to publish No Silent Night: The Christmas Battle for Bastogne, I already had planned to write the sequel, because the story about Bastogne is a two-part saga. The most popular is the account about the 101st Airborne Division and its epic defense of the city. However, every story about a besieged force usually has two armies involved: the besieged and the forces sent to relieve them. Now is the time to tell the tale of Patton’s 4th Armored Division and their race to relieve the paratroopers and glider men of the 101st.

Like No Silent Night, Patton at the Battle of the Bulge provides a German viewpoint to contrast with the American perspective. This story follows several German soldiers who fought with the 5th Fallschirmjäger Division. Contrary to popular myth, not all German soldiers were monsters. In this book are several examples where German soldiers showed remarkable kindness and mercy toward their sworn enemies, the American army. Sadly, there are also examples of brutality, where German soldiers executed innocent Belgian civilians.

True, Belgian civilians did perish as a result of American bombs, but those bombs were not meant for the hapless civilians hiding in houses and huddling in cellars. Surgical strikes did not exist in 1944 and 1945, because bombings were far less accurate in World War II than they are today. My research revealed several incidents where Allied aircraft even strafed and bombed American tanks instead of German panzers. In the cloud of war, good intentions did not always result in accurate targeting. On the other hand, the Germans did intend to execute civilians.

Furthermore, this work provides a civilian point of view. For those living in the path of these armies, the days around Christmas were harrowing ones. In many cases, they exhibited as much amazing courage and selfless sacrifice as the soldiers and tankers who fought among them. This book is also a story about them.

In addition, I dramatize the German operational briefings, turning them into dialogues. I know some purists might balk at that technique, but I want to present an enthralling story, not a dry account. The words in the briefings are almost entirely verbatim from the sources. In many instances, all I added were quotation marks.

Patton at the Battle of the Bulge, like all good books, was a collaborative effort. I made use of several German and local accounts, for which I would like to thank Roland Gaul, who provided them, including several valuable video interviews and letters; Guy Ries and his website on Bigonville. Jürg Herzig also gave me the lengthy account of Conrad Klemment, which proved indispensable in this story. I would like to thank Ivan Steenkiste, who was crucial in supplying me with information about the battles around Chaumont. His website is a treasure trove of information.

On the American side, I would like to offer my gratitude to several individuals. Jamie Leach, the son of Jimmie Leach, was an excellent resource in regard to his father. His father’s 37th Tank Battalion radio logs, complete with notations, were a wealth of information. Rochelle Dwight gave me great material on her father, William Dwight. She still sends me hilarious daily e-mails that make me laugh. I would like to thank Robert T. Murrell, an 80th Infantry Division veteran, who helped me find information on the 318th Infantry Regiment. Andrew Adkins, the archivist for the 80th Infantry Division website, was hugely instrumental in assisting me with personnel records and personal stories from the 318th. I would like to extend my thanks to Chris Bucholtz and Lynn Gamma, who helped me with finding records concerning the 362nd Fighter Group. I would like to thank Doris Davis, an executive officer for the Veterans of the Battle of the Bulge Association. Without her help, I would have never been able to contact countless veterans and their families.

Most important are the veterans and their families who provided me their accounts via questionnaires, letters, or interviews. The following accounts were invaluable to the story of the 4th Armored Division and their support elements: Roscoe M. Mulvey Jr., Armand Poirier, Bob Shaw, Jim Sanders, William Leaphart, Howard Lipscomb, Irving Heath, George Whitten, Robert Calvert, Matteo Damiano, Michael George, Eugene Wright, John P. Tvrdovsky, the family of Jack Holmes, Albert Gaydos and the Gaydos family, and Raymond Green. A special thanks goes out to Irving Heath, who provided me his personal photo album from the war. In addition to Irving Heath, another special thanks goes out to Robert Riley’s family, especially his daughter, Linda Riggs, who provided me several written accounts about his wartime experiences. Of course, one of the most valuable interviews was with retired brigadier general Albin F. Irzyk. I spent several hours speaking with him about his experiences. His memory was as sharp as a tack, and it was a wonderful experience providing him with information on the Germans who fought his unit at Chaumont. His autobiography was also an amazing source of information about the 4th Armored Division.

In addition to veterans’ interviews, several researchers and archivists also supported me in this endeavor. I would like to thank Dieter Stenger, who once again translated dozens of German documents into English. I would like to thank Susan Strange and Tim Frank, who spent innumerable hours poring over documents in the National Archives at College Park, Maryland. Without them, I would not have had thousands of valuable primary sources to examine. William Murray was my researcher at the Army Historical Education Center and helped me with the Oscar W. Koch collection, which was essential to the 4th Armored Division story. Megan Harris was my contact at the Library of Congress’s Veterans Oral History Project. Her assistance was instrumental in my success. Javier Tome, a specialist on the 653rd Schwere Panzerjäger Battalion, sent to me some interesting information on the whereabouts of the 653rd, and his contribution helped me answer the question of who attacked Major Albin Irzyk on December 23 in Chaumont.

I would be remiss if I did not mention Don M. Fox, author of Patton’s Vanguard: The United States Army Fourth Armored Division. A good historian always builds on the work of other great historians. Don’s book was my introduction to the 4th Armored Division. Though I had known about the 4th Armored, it was always in a supporting role to the 101st. After reading Don’s book, I realized how special the 4th Armored Division truly was, and I decided to start where he left off. Furthermore, his personal input helped me clear up several issues. His work was first-rate, and it still is the seminal book on the 4th Armored’s impact in the Second World War.

I would like to thank my agent, George Bick. His excellent advice pointed me in the right direction, and he is a superb sounding board for ideas. I would also like to thank Talia Platz, my editor, who offered me another chance at NAL Caliber. I hope you do not regret it! I cannot forget Brent Howard, who was my second editor at NAL. Thank you for your title ideas. I owe a debt of gratitude to General Dynamics and the U.S. Army Intelligence Center, which continue to employ me as an instructor at the Military Intelligence Officer Transition Course. Thank you for indulging my research pursuits and allowing me to use the same data from my books to teach future military intelligence officers in the United States Army.

Last, I would like to thank my wonderful wife, Caulyne. No man is an island, and without her support, none of this would have happened. She is the rock in our marriage, and she is my better half.1

PROLOGUE

| 0845 HOURS, SATURDAY, DECEMBER 23, 1944 |

Lead Platoon, Dog Company,
8th Tank Battalion, 4th Armored Division,
Southern Outskirts of Chaumont, Belgium

Private Bruce Fenchel knew Christmas was canceled the moment his first sergeant had barged into his room more than ninety-six hours before and announced, “Pack your duffel bags and get ready to roll. One man go to the kitchen and take any food you can get.”

Fenchel had been writing a letter to his mother when the sergeant broke the news, and a collective moan arose from the men. So much for R & R, thought Fenchel. Unmoved, the sergeant continued to bark out orders. “The rest of you put the machine guns back on your tanks and gas them and be ready to roll in two hours. The Germans have broken through our line in Bastogne, and Eisenhower has ordered General Patton’s 4th Armored to immediately head north.”

Twenty-year-old Fenchel could not believe it. His unit, the 8th Tank Battalion, part of the 4th Armored Division, had been locked in combat for months. Now, after more than eighty days on the line, the Eight Ballers were taking a much-needed break. Unfortunately, the Germans had other plans for the holidays. Instead of relaxing for Christmas, Fenchel and the rest of his division were driving back into battle.

Two years before, Bruce Donald Fenchel thought he was joining the Army Air Force. At his induction center at Camp Dodge, Des Moines, Iowa, he had taken several tests and passed all with flying colors. To his surprise, he learned that instead he was going to Fort Knox, Kentucky, where he would learn to drive a tank. Initially crestfallen, he remembered that his induction center company commander had suggested that he apply to Officer Candidate School and become an infantry officer. Fenchel knew that an infantry officer had a short life span. Tanks seemed a whole lot safer than being a bullet catcher—a foot soldier. He decided against the move, and was off to Fort Knox.1Now, Fenchel’s 8th Tank Battalion was under the command of a promising young officer, Major Albin F. Irzyk, who like Fenchel was also in his twenties. Irzyk did not waste much time. Receiving the order to move out, he had pushed his battalion onto the roads early on the morning of December 19. All day and night Fenchel and battalion rolled northward from their staging area at Domnom-lès-Dieuze in Lorraine, France, all the way into Belgium. By the morning of the twenty-third, they had reached a point several kilometers south of the village of Chaumont.

The 8th Tank Battalion was part of a larger force known as Combat Command B of the 4th Armored Division. A U.S. Armored Division had three combat commands: A, B, and R (Reserve). Each was a combined arms team that usually was comprised of a tank battalion, an armored infantry battalion, a self-propelled artillery battalion, an assortment of engineers, motorized cavalry (jeeps), and other support units. In addition, each command would further divide its force into task forces, cross-loading various infantry units with armor units. Therefore, 8th Tank Battalion had infantry and tanks as it wound its way north to Bastogne that early morning. Their mission: Get to Bastogne and relieve the 101st Airborne Division before the Germans crushed the beleaguered paratroopers.2Despite the importance of the task ahead, Fenchel simply wanted to stay warm and get some sleep. After clearing the town of Burnon during the previous afternoon, the young tank driver had assumed his unit would establish a perimeter for the night and continue their advance the following morning. He was wrong.

At 1834 hours, the orders came down from Combat Command B Headquarters over the radio: “Push onto Checkpoint Forty-four all night.”

A radio operator from another unit asked higher headquarters to confirm the order. It took them only seven minutes to reply: “We are moving on CP Forty-four all night. On foot if necessary.” Everyone now knew the command was probably coming from the top man himself—Lieutenant General George S. Patton.3Patton, the commander of the U.S. Third Army, sensed that the road to Bastogne was open. His army’s spearhead was the 4th Armored Division, and leading the 4th was CCB. At the forefront of Patton’s entire army was Private Fenchel in his little Stuart tank. So far, the 4th had met only determined resistance near Martelange, several kilometers southeast of Fenchel’s current position.4During World War II, armored units rarely conducted operations during hours of limited visibility. Unlike today, troopers back then did not have night-vision goggles. They drove their vehicles almost bumper-to-bumper, their eyes fixed on the slivers of light in front of them emanating from the partially covered headlights. These covered lights, known as “cat’s eyes,” barely gave off enough light for a man to see, and if he fell too far behind, he would lose sight of the vehicle in front of him.

Major Irzyk, deciding that the more maneuverable Stuarts and jeeps might be better suited to driving at night than the heavier and slower Shermans, ordered a platoon of jeeps from Baker Troop, 25th Cavalry Squadron, followed by a platoon of light tanks from Dog Company, to take the lead. Around 2300 hours, after they had completed their refueling, his battalion resumed their progress northward. It was slow going. Coupled with a lack of sleep, Fenchel had a hard time staying focused on the vehicle in front of him. At one point, he lost sight of the cat’s eyes. When he found them again, it was too late, and his tank crashed into the rear of another tank in his platoon. Luckily, no one was hurt and neither vehicle was damaged.5Finally, after several hours they reached a point about a kilometer and a half south of Chaumont. The top of the sun was barely over the eastern horizon, illuminating the shapes of the woods and open fields that bordered the road. During the night, Fenchel’s column had received intermittent small-arms fire, but nothing serious. Still, tanks were fickle creatures that demanded constant upkeep. Several Stuarts pulled off the road and their crews began routine maintenance while cavalry troopers in their jeeps scouted ahead to provide security.

Suddenly, at around ...

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