“Near-complete surprise was achieved by 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, which grounded the Allies’ overwhelmingly superior air forces. Fierce resistance on the northern shoulder of the offensive around Elsenborn Ridgeand 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.” wiki
Long ago and far away I served with a man named Bill Harris. This was in Turkey in a big NATO headquarters. Harris was a full colonel and a WW2 paratrooper. I was a very young major just back from Vietnam.
Bill was from Missouri, had attended the University of Missouri and had left that institution a year before the war when he ran out of money. He joined the pre-WW2 US Army and had reached the rank of sergeant before the Japanese attacked the fleet at Pearl Harbor.
He spent a few months improving the training of National Guard troops as they mobilized for war and then was sent to the Infantry Officer Candidate school at Fort Benning, Georgia. To his surprise he was assigned to the emerging paratroop force at graduation. He served with the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 82nd Airborne Division throughout the war in Europe.
Bill jumped into; Sicily and Salerno in Italy, Normandy and Holland with the 505th Regiment. He was the only man I ever saw who had four stars embedded in his parachute badge, one for each of his combat jumps. At the end of the Market Garden operation in Holland the 82nd Division was pulled back to a rest and training area outside Paris. There, the division built itself a camp and settled down to wait for spring and an anticipated jump across the Rhine. By that time, Bill Harris was a major and the chief operations staff officer (S-3) of the 505th.
Christmas approached and the division prepared to party. Officers’ Class A uniforms were brought over from storage in England so that they would look resplendent for an anticipated grand Christmas gala to be held a few days before the holiday. The front was far to the east and the intelligence people thought the Germans would be inactive for a while, certainly long enough for the 82nd to celebrate. The division’s engineers built an amphitheater made of canvas and wood in which to hold the officers’ party. The structure had concentric circular platforms on which tables for four were placed at higher and higher levels as one moved away from the center. In the very center of the big tent was a dance floor. The division’s band combined forces with part of the Air Corps’ Glenn Miller Orchestra to provide music. “Chattanooga Choo Choo” and “American Patrol” sounded through the wintry night for the party. Women and booze were pre-requisites for such an event. Paris was an easy source for the liquor. Army nurses, Red Cross girls and French women from the city were invited and eagerly accepted.
On the much anticipated night, the revelers gathered. According to Harris, the ladies were enchanting. The American women were in uniform but the French ladies wore dresses from their pre-war wardrobe and were described to me by Harris as “simply lovely. ” Champagne flowed. The bands played. Couples filled the dance floor. The division’s officers were dressed in “pinks and greens” with “bloused” jump boots. Major General Gavin, the 37 year old division commander, sat with his staff in the circle closest to the dance floor.
Just before midnight, the division’s “officer of the day,” entered the “big top” and approached Gavin to whisper in his ear. A few minutes later the division’s chief intelligence staff officer (G-2) did the same. Gavin rose to exit with the regimental commanders. At that point Harris gathered his belongings from the table and had someone take the regiment’s women friends to their transport. The 82nd Airborne Division’s officers sat and waited champagne glasses in hand.
There were similar parties for enlisted men underway across the division. In all these festive locations, soldiers waited.
The division chief of staff arrived to announce that the Germans had attacked in great strength in Belgium and Luxembourg, that US units in the path of the onslaught had been defeated and, in some cases, annihilated. Troops were being rushed forward to stop the German advance and to that end the division would move to the front in two hours.
Everyone changed into combat gear, and began climbing into trucks in blowing snow and darkness. Long “serials” of 2 1/2 ton trucks rolled toward the east as they finished the job of loading troops and supplies.
Major Bill Harris rode in the right front seat of his jeep at the end of the 505th’s column of vehicles. At four in the morning the regiment passed through a little town in Belgium. At one street corner a US MP stood directing traffic. Harris stopped his jeep to ask the soldier what unit he was from. The man answered that he belonged to the 7th Armored Division. They had passed through the town the previous day, and had left him. He had seen no other Americans until the 82nd had begun arriving in the last hour. As they spoke a rumbling, clanking could be heard. They turned toward the sound and watched in awestruck surprise as a German Tiger crawled into view as it rounded a corner at the end of the street. The turret rotated towards them. Harris reached out, grabbed the MP by the front of his clothes and pulled him into the jeep across his lap while yelling at his driver to move! They drove out of town before the tank could finish aiming its main gun.
The 82nd Division moved to its assigned sector on the north flank of the Bulge penetration. There, it played a crucial role in halting the westward advance of the 5th Panzer Army under General der Panzertruppe Hasso von Manteuffel. Manteuffel became a Liberal Party politician after the war.
The quality of the 82nd Division in the Battle of the Bulge is well represented by the possibly apocryphal legend of a sergeant of the 325th Glider Regiment who told a retreating tank destroyer crew, “… pull your vehicle in behind me—I’m the 82nd Airborne, and this is as far as the bastards are going!”
As part of the German plan for the Bulge operation, a “scratch” airborne Kampfgruppe (battle group) had been assembled to participate. One of Germany’s most experienced paratroop officers, Colonel Friedrich_August_Freiherr_von_der_Heydte was appointed to command this forelorn hope. This nobleman, a famous professor of law after WW2, fought in Holland in 1940, in Greece, in Crete, in Italy, in Normandy as CO of the 6th Fallschirmjager (paratroop) regiment and finally in this last desperate throw of the dice. 1200 paratroop instructors, students and officer cadets were brought together, loaded into transport aircraft and dropped into a Belgian wood to assist von Manteuffel’s advance. Once there, they discovered that they were surrounded by counter-attacking Americans. Re-supply drops never arrived. Ammunition and food ran out. There was no ammunition, no shelter and his men were slowly freezing to death. In this circumstance, Von der Heydte (a holder of the Knight’s Cross) made a command decision and sent a parlementaire officer out of the woods to a road to talk to the Americans under a flag of truce. In the course of this meeting in the snow, the Luftwaffe officer said that the battle group wished to surrender but could not, and would not surrender to any but US or British paratroops.
The next day Bill Harris accompanied General Gavin to the site of the talks, and displayed a white flag while standing next to Gavin’s jeep. The same German officer came from the forest to ask who they were. He returned to the dark of the trees and soon emerged at the head of a column of German paratroops that was led by Baron von der Heydte himself. Von der Heydte saluted Gavin and handed him his sidearm. The Germans stacked arms in the road and waited quietly in ranks to be loaded into the trucks Gavin had brought with him.
Bill Harris is no longer with us. I know that von der Heydte is not, nor is Gavin. I hope that somewhere they and the sergeant from the 325th Glider Regiment are celebrating Christmas together. pl