A GI in the Ardennes
The Battle of the Bulge
A G.I. in The Ardennes: The Battle of the Bulge was originally published in Belgium as a very comprehensive illustrated guide for those interested in the Battle of the Bulge, particularly those visiting the battle sites in the Ardennes, it was first published in English in 2020.
It’s still got a lot to offer the general audience who will not have a chance to visit the area - and certainly stands out as the most comprehensively illustrated guide to the battle available. There are many contemporary images from American and German sources - but it unique perspective is its modern colour photographs showing the weapons and equipment used by the ordinary soldier.
A very good introduction to the battle for the general reader, and definitely of interest to those who are already familiar with the story.
Hitler understands that success will hinge on two conditions. First, the element of surprise must be preserved at all cost and the offensive has to adhere to a brisk timetable to prevent the Allies from regrouping and reorganizing. Second, the weather must be such that Allied airplanes remain grounded. To prevent leaks or intercepts, Hitler imposes strict telephone and radio silence.
Knowledge of the operation is restricted to a small circle of high ranking officers, all sworn to secrecy under penalty of death. Their movements and communications are closely monitored by Gestapo agents. The concentration of troops, equipment, fuel and ammunition under strict secrecy, represents an enormous logistical challenge.
Troops, tanks, and artillery are brought in under cover of darkness from as far away as Poland and Norway on a rail network that is relentlessly bombed by Allied planes. Arrived near their assembly areas in close proximity to American lines, they are carefully dispersed and camouflaged. To avoid telltale smoke plumes, troops are issued charcoal instead of firewood. The bulk of the troops would only be informed of the offensive the day before it is launched.
In spite of the Germans' best efforts, some American troops and civilians notice unusual or suspicious activity, but their reports are downplayed or dismissed. As he accompanied a six-men patrol from the 38th Cavalry Group somewhere east of Bullingen, 1s' Lt. Wesley Ross observed: "Trees were being cut down with saws and axes, and tanks and other heavy motorized equipment were moving around over straw-covered trails to muffle their sounds. While watching this activity from a concealed position two hundred yards away on i the opposite side of the canyon, we listened to the big tank engines for some time and sensed that something unusual was afoot.”
Bill Campbell and his buddy "Rosie" of the 28th Infantry Division are manning a forward observation post. When they report increased activity with numerous trucks and tanks, the response from their headquarter is: "These must be ours." To which they replied: "When did we start wearing gray uniforms?"
The main focus of A GI in the Ardennes is the experience of the ordinary soldier and alongside a number sections dealing with personal memories from individuals who were there, are many pages devoted to the details of their daily existence. Alongside sections on a variety of weapons and other equipment there is plenty of material relating to the individual GI - his uniform and personal gear, his field rations, his access to mail are amongst many subjects covered. All are accompanied by some very good colour photographs - modern photographs which clearly illustrate their subject.
For example the following excerpt focuses on the business of digging foxholes:
Second only to his rifle, the infantryman's most important tool is his shovel. The M-1943 entrenching shovel (A) features a swiveling head that can be fully extended, angled as a hoe, or folded back for storage. The M-1943 gradually replaces the M-1910 shovel (B), although many soldiers prefer the T-handle of the older model. Wherever a unit stops, the first order of business is usually digging in for concealment and protection against shelling and small arms. If they are only stopping for a few hours or to bivouac for the night, soldiers dig individual slit trenches about two foot wide, two foot deep and as long as the soldier is tall. Remembers William Campbell of the 28th Infantry Division: "It was like digging a grave."
If the position is to be held, one or two-men foxholes are dug about four to five feet deep, usually with a step at the bottom, upon which soldiers can sit down, or stand to stay out of pooling water or to fire their rifles. According to army manuals, a foxhole with two feet of clearance above a crouching soldier protects him from tanks passing overhead, but German tankers learn to skid their treads over foxholes to collapse them and bury occupants alive.
The longer they remain in a defensive location the more elaborate their underground "homes" become. Foxholes are improved with roofs made of logs, doors or corrugated steel taken from nearby buildings and covered with earth for protection against tree bursts and mortar shells. The floor is lined with hay or pine boughs. Soldiers carve out shelves for supplies, candles and ammunition.
Frank Mareska of the 75th Infantry Division recalls that the much-dreaded German 88 guns left no time to duck:
“You only venture out of your foxhole if it was necessary. Pissing or shitting had to be done either in a K or C-ration box, period! Renderings could then be thrown out over the parapet of your foxhole.”
Larger holes are dug for machine guns and mortar positions, sometimes, entire vehicles are entrenched. When visibility is limited by falling snow, fog or obscurity, companies dig listening slit trenches some distance outside their perimeter to post sentries.
Hard-frozen ground is doubly murderous for the infantry: It makes shells more deadly as they explode on the surface, rather than penetrate the ground, and it also makes it much more difficult to dig in. John McAuliffe of the 87th Infantry Division recalls that setting up a mortar position involves digging a large, two to three-foot deep circular entrenchment in addition to individual foxholes for the crew: "Sometimes we were digging a hole and we were almost done and they'd say: 'OK, we’re moving out!'“.
After a long day of fighting, many are too exhausted to dig. In some places, the frozen ground is simply too hard for the entrenching shovel and few men carry the cumbersomeMI 910 pickmattock(C).
Most vehicles carry full-size shovels, axes and pickaxes. John Di Battista of the 4lh Armored Division recalls: "The mattocks were heavy enough to go through the crust of ground. Once the crust was broken out, entrenching tools could do the job.[...] We were desperate hugging the ground waiting for our turn at a pick."
Some units are provided with half-pound blocks of TNT with pull-type fuse lighters, fuses and blasting caps (D) to blast through the rock-hard crust of the frozen ground. An obvious disadvantage of the TNT method is the attention it draws. Rocco Moretto of the 1!l Infantry Division recalls: "Everything was going beautifully but the TNT threw up heavy black smoke in the explosion areas. The enemy observing this quickly began to rake our positions with heavy concentrations of fire and we began to sustain heavy casualties."
Naturally, soldiers do not bother to fill their foxholes as they leave, consequently, Europe is riddled with millions of holes. It is not unusual for a foxhole to be occupied alternatively by American and German soldiers. After the war, It falls to landowners and farmers to fill in hundreds of thousands of foxholes and shell craters which are troublesome for machinery and hazardous to livestock. A post war survey of the grounds of the Castle of Rolley, an area of about 730 acres near Bastogne, counts no less than 2,490 foxholes to fill in.
This excerpt from A G.I. in The Ardennes: The Battle of the Bulge appears by kind permission of Pen & Sword Books Ltd. Copyright remains with the author.