Part I: A Father’s Combat Experience in WWII
One Soldier’s Experience in the Confusion of the “Battle of the Bulge”
Landing in Europe and The Battle of Brest
PTSD Combat Fatigue was a common symptom of the soldier’s who took part in the campaigns of WWII, however, most were never treated due to the lack of knowledge of the disorder. My father was assigned to the 740th Field Artillery (FA) Battalion which landed in France on August 10, 1944. They arrived at Normandy and proceeded South toward Brest where some German troops were bottled up. The unit provided artillery support for the VIII Corp which took the town after fighting house to house for a month.
The only killing he witnessed here was when a sniper picked off one of the guys in his unit. He was extremely angry at the German sniper because he felt this was a cowardly way to act on the battlefield.
Then there was a sweep across France where the American forces followed up as the Germans retreated to their border. Since Brest was out on a peninsula, the 740th FA more or less followed behind the main drive. They covered so much ground in a week that it seemed like the war would soon be over.
Battle of Bulge
The VIII Corp was a component of the First Army and was placed on the front line in Belgium right at the German border. St. Vith is about ten miles from the German border and my father’s artillery battalion was located in Atzerath, which is on the road between St. Vith and the German border. Two regiments of the U.S. 106th Infantry Division were positioned in front of them on a small mountain known as The Schnee Eifel — which was actually in Germany. The 740th was placed to supply artillery support if the Germans made a frontal attack on the 106th.
Planning and preparations were being made for the invasion of Germany. Their time here was mainly used for rest and recuperation. The men had dug-in for the winter which was the coldest winter in 40 years for that area.
Meanwhile, the Germans had clandestinely shifted about 250,000 troops with equipment up to their front line without the American Army having a clue. Four Panzer Armies, including the 6th and the 5th with about 1000 tanks and armored vehicles and 100,000 men planned to go right through the area where the 740th was deployed trying to reach the Belgium port of Antwerp. The Germans moved men and equipment by night and stayed hidden during the day.
On December the 16th at 5:30 in the morning, the Germans opened up with a huge artillery barrage. Most of the communications were knocked out from the shelling, for a long period, several days, no one knew what was going on. German troops started to appear behind the American lines in quite a few places.
The VIII Corps artillery was caught off balance, since eight of its nine battalions were positioned to support the 106th Division, including the 740th FA. The Germans did not assault the 106th by frontal attack, instead, they slipped around both their north and south flanks. The artillery couldn’t be brought into play as it had been positioned to support operations forward of the 106th anticipating only a frontal attack. The German 18th Volksgrenadier Division came through the Losheim Gap north of the 106th and to the south, at Blelaif, Germany, and joined together to complete the encirclement. Eight thousand men of the 106th Infantry were surrounded and would surrender two days later. The 740th artillery at Atzerath was ordered to pull back to St. Vith, several other of the VIII Corp artillery units ended up being trapped as the Panzer armies poured through the Losheim gap.
Here is an example of some of the initial confusion from “A Time for Trumpets” by Charles B. MacDonald:
“Shortly after the offensive opened, in mid-morning of the 16th, Colonel Brewster, of the 740th, felt compelled to shift a battery of the 740th Field Artillery Battalion from positions near Auw (near Losheim Gap) lest it be overrun. The battery joined the battalion’s other two firing batteries south of Schoenberg near the village of Amelscheid. By mid-afternoon, Brewster was convinced that he should displace all his batteries behind the Our River; but at the request of the 106th Division’s artillery commander, General McMahon, who assured Brewster that his division was going to hold, Brewster agreed to leave a firing battery of each battalion in place. At daylight on the 17th, Brewster realized that was a mistake, for he learned of the penetrations at Bleialf and Andler (near Losheim Gap). He promptly ordered the three remaining batteries to displace. That of the 740th Field Artillery Battalion got through Schoenberg ahead of the Volksgrenadiers. Not so the other two.”
A large portion of the VIII Corps artillery was forced to displace so often that two to four days would elapse before the battalions finally settled long enough to engage the enemy. Other battalions simply were whittled away by enemy action every time they went into firing position (the 687th Field Artillery Battalion was overrun in front of Wiltz, in Wiltz, and west of Wiltz).
St. Vith was one of the targets of the attacking forces. The road network through the town was to be used to resupply the Panzer armies that would be moving to the north and south of St. Vith.
The 740th artillery was moved to the town of Poteau and there set up their 8” howitzers to fire on the attacking German tanks and troops.
The roads around St. Vith became clogged with the traffic of retreating troops in a panic to get out and other American forces trying to get to the front to relieve forces that urgently needed reinforcements. The German units were pressing forward cutting off American troops who became isolated in many of the small Belgian towns.
740th Field Artillery Overrun by 1st SS Panzer Division
Rumors were starting to spread that the German SS Panzer units were murdering American POW’s. Records show that eleven black POWs were murdered from the 333th Field Artillery and there were other sporadic killings taking place in this sector. On the afternoon of the December 17th the Germans of the 1st SS Panzer Division massacred 80 American POW’s in Malmedy, which was only about 5 miles from Poteau, Belgium.
To make matters worse, the Germans had formed a special force of 500 German soldiers dressed in American uniforms who spoke English, some without any sign of an accent. Their mission was to create additional confusion to the chaos that already existed. Some were even driving in American jeeps.
At Poteau, which is about 6 miles northwest of St. Vith, the 740th FA set up their guns to shell German columns when their positions were determined. On the night of Dec.17/18th, it was snowing heavily and freezing cold. This was the worst winter in Belgium for 40 years. It was pitch black so that one could hardly see his hands in front of his face.
A rifle company walked through the 740th’s position on their way toward the German forces. An hours or so after the rifle company passed through, the artillery men spotted helmets approaching their position and it was assumed they were those of the rifle company falling back.
Not until these troops were right on top of the artillery battery did anyone realize that they were Germans of the 1st SS Panzer division.
The artillery officer shouted an order to blow up their own guns to prevent their falling into German hands. My father and a friend of his ran to their gun to spike it. They were in the process of destroying the gun and his friend was in mid-sentence when a projectile hit the friend’s head taking half of it off. From the flash of another explosion which lit up his position, he could see his friend’s brains sliding out of his head.
Panic ensued in the battery with men yelling, screaming, shooting and running. My father grabbed his rifle and took off. In the pitch black he ran into someone who started to fight him, he couldn’t see the figure in the dark and blew the person away. He was pretty sure it was a German.
There was a pack of 5 or 6 guys who made it out together; they ran and struggled their way through the deep snow until they were exhausted having no idea of where they were. When there was no sign of the enemy, they huddled together in the snow and got some sleep for the night.
When they began to awaken as the light of day, my father noticed a strange phenomenon, he was covered with a thin crust of ’pink snow’ – being in somewhat of a frozen daze he at first thought it was pretty. Suddenly he came to the realization of what it was as he gained fuller consciousness. His friend’s brains had been spattered on his uniform – and the light of day created an eerie reflection of the blood and the brain matter stuck on his uniform. He suddenly jumped up and brushed the snow off of himself.
During the morning of the 18th word reached the VIII Corps command post that the 740th Field Artillery Battalion had been overrun by the 1st SS Panzer Division at Poteau, west of St. Vith.
When the 8″ Howitzers that had been abandoned were recovered by 7th Armored Division, all nine were in perfect working condition. No one had managed to destroy any of the big guns; even the Germans had left them intact.
The army had set up a staging area behind St. Vith to gather stragglers who were wandering all over from units that were being overrun so that they could be reformed into other fighting units or replacements. It was reported that some of the 740th were on the St. Vith – Vielsalm Road on Dec. 19th. Vielsalm was the town 12 miles west of St. Vith where the American commander planned to retreat when St. Vith fell. It fell on Dec. 22nd, 1944.
After the 740th Artillery was overrun at Poteau, Belgium, it’s unclear both the sequence of events and to which units my father was temporarily assigned. However, it was during this time period that several other events my father experienced occurred.
An Unauthorized, but Wise Truce
My father was with an artillery column that was moving down a road at night. Once again visibility was low and it was freezing. They could see that another column was heading toward them, coming from the opposite direction. They thought they were in the rear of American lines heading further back, so once again it was assumed the other column was friendly. When the two columns met, both U.S. and German forces realized that they had made the same error. Fortunately, everyone froze, no one opened fire.
Both columns halted and officers from both sides made their way to the front of the column. One officer grabbed my father because the officer knew he could read maps better than anyone else in the unit. Basically, the German and American officers decided that they would just pass each other by and pretend that they had not seen one another. A fire fight at such close quarter would have been catastrophic to both units, being wounded would have meant a slow death by freezing.
As the Americans passed the German column both sides stared back at each other. It could be seen that the enemy was just as cold and miserable as they were – fellow human beings who did not want to be in some frozen forest in Belgium either. My father noticed the age difference with the Germans, many were much younger, like 15 and 16 years old, and many were considerably older, some perhaps in their 50’s. It was obvious the Germans were running out of men that were of fighting age.
This was not an infrequent event with columns running into each other. Originally, the Germans cut through American lines isolating many units. After the German drive was stopped well short of its goals, the Germans had to turn around and retreat, having to re-cross the rear of the American lines. The German retreat was totally unplanned, therefore, there was much confusion on both sides during the battle.
PTSD Combat Fatigue
My father was with an artillery battery one night and it was his turn to go to an ammunition dump and pick up more shells. When he returned to the battery, the position had been zeroed in on by German artillery positions. The entire battery had been wiped out – everyone was dead, literally blown to bits.
The next day a patrol had been sent out to check on the battery because communication had been cut, they found my father sitting in the middle of this in a complete daze. Obviously, something had snapped.
After this event, he was temporarily assigned to being a driver delivering supplies as part of a motor pool.
The Ugly Reality of Battle – A Cause for PTSD Combat Fatigue
Since the artillery was normally in the rear, the front line got into the habit of piling up bodies close the artillery positions in the rear. Separate piles were kept for American, Germans and civilians. Occasionally a shell would hit a pile of bodies and blow frozen parts all over the place. On one occasion an officer ordered the artillery battery to restack the dead. The order was ignored.
A Surreal Treat
It was probably toward the end of the battle where he was in a staging position to be reassigned that he was waiting at the site of a Belgian village that had been obliterated. On one block where most of the building had been flattened, there was an ice cream shop completely intact. The owner was still making ice cream and he was giving it to the soldiers. Amidst all of this horror and destruction, my father sat eating a chocolate ice cream cone.
From the records, it appears that the majority of the 740th Field Artillery was sent to Clemency, France to rebuild after they had been overrun. It seems my father was not reconnected to this unit until the Rhineland Campaign. He never mentioned returning to France and he ended up crossing the Rhine over the Ramagen Bridge driving a gasoline truck whereas the 740th crossed the Rhine downriver a little north of Mainz at Boppard and St. Goar.
Since the German artillery barrage and attack had knocked out communications and split up American troop units, the VIII Corp was no longer in touch with its higher command structure in the First Army. On the 19th of December, the VIII Corp was transferred to the Third Army under General Patton although, through the remainder of the battle, General Middleton of the VIII Corp made most of the decisions on his own. Patton had many other major issues to deal with around Bastogne and in the southern sector of the Bulge.
Part II will cover the Rhineland Campaign, The Battle of Central Europe and the end of the war.
To Go Directly To Part II Click on Link on Next Line:
PTSD WWII – A Soldier’s Journey Through the Inferno of The Third Reich – http://bit.ly/1WyWXKQ 2227
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Synopsis of Battle of the Bulge from Wikipedia
The Battle of the Bulge (16 December 1944 – 25 January 1945) was the last major German offensive campaign of World War II. It was launched through the densely forested Ardennes region of Wallonia in Belgium, France, and Luxembourg, on the Western Front, towards the end of World War II, in the European theatre. The surprise attack caught the Allied forces completely off guard. American forces bore the brunt of the attack and incurred their highest casualties of any operation during the war. The battle also severely depleted Germany’s armoured forces on the Western Front, and they were largely unable to replace them. German personnel and later, Luftwaffe aircraft (in the concluding stages of the engagement), also sustained heavy losses.
The Germans officially referred to the offensive as Unternehmen Wacht am Rhein (“Operation Watch on the Rhine”). The Allies called it the Ardennes Counteroffensive. The phrase “Battle of the Bulge” was coined by contemporary press to describe the bulge in Allied front lines on wartime news maps,[c] and it became the most widely used name for the battle. The German offensive was intended to stop Allied use of the Belgian port of Antwerp and to split the Allied lines, allowing the Germans to encircle and destroy four Allied armies and force the Western Allies to negotiate a peace treaty in the Axis powers‘ favor. Once that was accomplished, the German dictator Adolf Hitler believed he could fully concentrate on the Soviets on the Eastern Front. The offensive was planned by the German forces with utmost secrecy, with minimal radio traffic and movements of troops and equipment under cover of darkness. Intercepted German communications indicating a substantial German offensive preparation were not acted upon by the Allies.
The Germans achieved total surprise on the morning of 16 December 1944, due to a combination of Allied overconfidence, preoccupation with Allied offensive plans, and poor aerial reconnaissance. The Germans attacked a weakly defended section of the Allied line, taking advantage of heavily overcast weather conditions that grounded the Allies’ overwhelmingly superior air forces. Fierce resistance on the northern shoulder of the offensive, around Elsenborn Ridge, and in the south, around Bastogne, blocked German access to key roads to the northwest and west that they counted on for success. Columns of armor and infantry that were supposed to advance along parallel routes found themselves on the same roads. This, and terrain that favored the defenders, threw the German advance behind schedule and allowed the Allies to reinforce the thinly placed troops. Improved weather conditions permitted air attacks on German forces and supply lines, which sealed the failure of the offensive. In the wake of the defeat, many experienced German units were left severely depleted of men and equipment, as survivors retreated to the defenses of the Siegfried Line.
The Germans’ initial attack involved 406,000 men; 1,214 tanks, tank destroyers, and assault guns; and 4,224 artillery pieces. These were reinforced a couple of weeks later, bringing the offensive’s total strength to around 450,000 troops, and 1,500 tanks and assault guns. Between 67,200 and 125,000 of their men were killed, missing, or wounded in action. For the Americans, out of 610,000 troops involved in the battle, 89,000 were casualties.While some sources report that up to 19,000 were killed, Eisenhower’s personnel chief put the number at about 8,600. British historian Antony Beevor reports the number killed as 8,407. It was the largest and bloodiest battle fought by the United States in World War II.