I really liked this one, it covers perhaps one of the most significant major battles of World War 2 and has a particular focus on the incredible defence undertaken by a small Unit of around 18 US Troops who found themselves at a key location in the last major German offensive.
The story is mainly concerned with a Unit of US Soldiers who are supposed to be Intelligence & Reconnaissance specialists and who are intended to be undertaking patrols behind enemy lines with a view to obtaining vital intelligence on German positions and movements etc. It turns out that in late 1944 when a severe Winter is kicking in, there is a gap in the line for the Allied deployment in the Ardennes Forest and the Unit gets asked to, in effect, act as General Infantry and to man the gap to complete a defensive perimeter.
By this time the supply lines for the Allies were quite stretched and because the Unit was really for I&RI they did not have heavy weapons and the Commander of the Unit manages to scrounge some limited firepower and luckily gets hold of a Heavy Machine Gun which is mounted on a Jeep and they dig a big hole so that the Gun is much lower as the vehicle sits in the hole. This Machine Gun will be very important when they are called upon to defend the position.
Of course, the major Offensive is Adolf Hitler’s last throw of the dice where the Germans manage to cobble together several Panzer Tank Divisions and they attack through similar routes to those used when they first attacked France earlier in the War through the Ardennes Forrest. This is the ‘Battle of the Bulge’ and it very nearly succeeded which could have prolonged the War considerably and no doubt costs many more lives on both sides.
What makes the book so good is that the small Unit manage to defend their vital part of the line with incredible results and the casualties on the German side are far in excess of those suffered by the US Troops. It also has a lot on the situation the Soldiers finally faced once they were eventually over-run and gives many insights into how Prisoners of War were treated in Germany and that is not something I have seen much about before. We all know the stories of how the Japanese treated POWs but what comes out from this book is that Allied Soldiers who were captured in the European theatre had to endure some awful conditions as well. It was not as bad as the Japanese Camps where beatings and random killing were the norm, but it was extremely tough in terms of lots of travel by rail with far too many men in cattle wagons and lack of food was a big problem.
There’s also quite a good bit at the end about how the small Unit of Soldiers which undertook such a key role in the Battle of the Bulge went unrecognised for decades but finally they were awarded Medals when they were old men and that is quite a nice ending to the book.
The defence by this Unit was so important because it held up the attack under Lieutenant Colonel Jochen Peiper who was one of the top German Commanders (and a key figure in the SS) and the delay ultimately led to the failure of the German Offensive. A crucial part of the German plan was to charge quickly through the Forrest and to encircle the Allied Troops and to get to the Port of Antwerp where they could reinforce the defence of the German Position which was already there. The Offensive was mostly a failure simply because the Germans did not have enough supplies especially of Fuel for the Panzers and the plan had been to capture Allied Fuel Dumps and to use that source. Unfortunately for the Germans, they couldn’t find one of the biggest Allied Fuel Dumps and they missed it by a very small distance, but in addition due to the delays, the Allies figured out what the Germans were up to and they started to burn their own Fuel Dumps and deprive the Germans of fuel so the Panzers ground to a halt.
Much of the localised fighting near the small village of Lanzerath defended by the I&R Unit was similar to World War 1 with the Germans just charging up the hill towards the Americans and suffering ridiculous casualties and yet continuing to launch several similar ‘suicide’ attacks and just getting mown down by the US guns. In fact, once the Germans take the position they are shocked by how few US Troops there are and they ask where all the others went !!
Several of the US Soldiers get injured very badly and end up being looked after by the Germans and they seem to have had varying levels of care and there was a big problem because the Germans have very little in terms of medical supplies etc. By that time in the War the Germans are in terrible trouble regarding supplies of any sort and they were doing things like taking Medical Kits off US Soldiers they kill or capture for themselves to use. This was particularly the case with Morphine Ampules because the US Troops were all issued with them as a vital painkiller but the German Army never had such treatments.
The start of the Battle of the Bulge is interesting as it is quite astonishing how the Germans managed to move up so many Tanks and other forms of Armoured transport and Artillery right up under the noses of the Allies. A key factor was probably the weather because the dense cloud meant that the Allied freedom with regards to the air was useless because it was not safe to fly planes and therefore this essential reconnaissance ability was curtailed. Indeed, one of the reasons the German offensive failed was because the weather started to improve and the Allied Air Forces could start attacking the Panzers and German Troops on the ground etc. The awful cold and ice and snow and stuff was a big problem and it seems to be that if and when an American Patrol did sense that the Germans were up to something, when they reported it to their Superiors it was dismissed as something trivial.
There is a lot about the Malmedy massacre which was a terrible event whereby the fanatical and vicious SS Panzer Divisions lined up loads of captured US Troops in a field and just mowed them down using the Machine Guns on the Panzers etc. and this was a subject of a Trial at Nuremburg after the War.
However, even if the Nazi lunatics did not kill you once you were a prisoner, there were other awful situations where you could easily find yourself in a spot of bother. One of the problems was that the Germans transported POWs back to Germany using the worn out and heavily bombed Train network and they failed to paint Red Crosses on the top of the Trains so the Allied Fighters would swoop down on them and launch Rockets and stuff and you could end up being killed in a ‘Blue on Blue’ situation by your own side.
Something else that is very striking is just how young the men were and how the Commander of the Lanzerath Unit was just 24 and the responsibility and pressure these guys were under is just something hard to fathom. As is so often the case from such histories of the Wars, it really was about a tightly knit group of very young men who were really fighting for one another and there was a huge loyalty to their comrades.
Anyway, that should give you a flavor of the Book and it really is very good. I found it easy to read and I was always eager to keep reading it and to see what happened next and the tangential bits that it goes into like the Malmedy massacre and what happened to the Nazi Commander involved after the War is very good. I am a big fan of that TV Series from a few years ago called ‘Band of Brothers’ and one of the episodes is about where the 101st Airborne are trying to defend a wooded position during the Battle of the Bulge near Bastogne, and this Book enhances what was in that programme nicely.
If you fancy a copy of the book then nip over to the ‘Non-Finance Books’ page and you should find it on there quite easily.
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