German attack in the Ardennes started 72 years ago today


Bryan sent me the above photo a couple of days ago, with the comment, “Check out the heavy fog. It’s pea soup. It looks pretty darn cold, too.”

Yep, it was extremely cold in that time and place. According to Wikipedia, this is what the photo shows: “American M36 tank destroyers of the 703rd TD, attached to the 82nd Airborne Division, move forward during heavy fog to stem German spearhead near Werbomont, Belgium, 20 December 1944.”

A Nazi soldier, heavily armed, carries ammunition boxes forward with companion in territory taken by their counter-offensive in this scene from captured German film. Belgium, December 1944.

A Nazi soldier, heavily armed, carries ammunition boxes forward with companion in territory taken by their counter-offensive in this scene from captured German film. Belgium, December 1944.

Four days earlier, the Germans had attacked the center of the American line with 20 divisions we didn’t know they had, much less that they were in that area. What followed would be the largest and bloodiest battle fought by the United States in the Second World War, popularly called the Battle of the Bulge.  (Those 20 German divisions — 13 infantry, 7 armored — attacked a mere 8 Allied divisions, mostly American. By the end of the battle, the Germans would have 24 divisions in the fight, to our 30. Back then, a division usually included between 10,000 and 20,000 men. So, more than a million men were involved.)

The center, in the Ardennes forest in Belgium, was a quiet area. The American line there was manned by green American troops. It was a place to put them where they could get used to being in a combat area, living in foxholes under rough weather conditions, without being tested by heavy fighting of the sort that was going on to the north and south.

My father-in-law, Walter Joseph Phelan Jr., was one of those green troops. He had been thrown into the new 106 Infantry Division at the last minute before being sent up on the line.

The 106th was occupying the position where the very tip of the German spear struck on Dec. 16, and rolled right over the Americans. My father-in-law, plus novelist Kurt Vonnegut and thousands of other soldiers of the 106th, were captured and spent the rest of the war freezing and starving in German Stalags. Like the guys in the photo taken by the Germans, below.

This is how the war ended for thousands of Americans. The photo above shows the beginning of the American counterattack, which led to victory over the next month, and the breaking of the Siegfried Line.

When I get home tonight I’m going to hunt for his written account of Mr. Phelan’s experience, and scan it and post it…

ADN-ZB/Archiv, II.Weltkrieg 1939-45 Die Ardennenoffensive der faschistischen deutschen Wehrmacht beginnt am 16. Dezember 1944 gegen die alliierten Truppen in Westeuropa. Nach anfänglichen Erfolgen müssen sich die deutschen Truppen bis Ende Januar 1945 auf ihre Ausgangsstellungen zurückziehen. Eine Kolonne gefangengenommener amerikanischer Soldaten. (Büschel) 125-45

23 thoughts on “German attack in the Ardennes started 72 years ago today

  1. Bryan Caskey

    Hope y’all have been having a productive Friday. I had to go to a hearing in Charleston this AM. I was amazed that the parking deck attached to the courthouse was completely full and unavailable, but I guess that’s the national focus on Roof’s trial in federal court.

    In any event, I got my state court hearing done after having to park several blocks away.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Look at it this way — was your parking problem caused by 7 German armored divisions that appeared out of nowhere and started attacking you? Had you awakened that morning frozen into your foxhole so you had to chip yourself out?

      If not, quit yer bellyachin’…

      1. Bryan Caskey

        Wasn’t complaining. I was just relating that I was amazed that the courthouse parking deck was completely full before 10:00AM and had a sign saying so.

        I’ve been to the Charleston Courthouse plenty, and I’ve never seen the deck at capacity. (and on a Friday!)

          1. Bryan Caskey

            Well said, Captain. Anyway, I’m taking the rest of the day off. My sisters are in town from NYC. Off for some family time.

            Have a good weekend, commentariat.

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          I can’t quite make out the date. Is it the 23rd? That seems about right, since the press is aware of the movement of Patton’s 3rd Army. He would have started the pivot about four days earlier, and he broke through to Bastogne on the 26th…

      1. Bart

        Trump is proving to be exactly what I expected him to be. A small man with a penchant to air petty grievances, never forget an insult or slight, vindictive to a fault, going against conventional wisdom for the sake of being a contraire. His appointments have been a farce with the exception of one or two. Now he has chosen Mulvaney to be his budget director. That is all we need. I have no problem with cutting wasteful spending but when you take someone like Mulvaney to be responsible for the national budget, that is lunacy and irresponsible.

        Yes, we do need the input and serious consideration of a successful business person to be actively involved in budgeting decisions but they must be tempered with reason and caution. I don’t think Mulvaney possesses that quality, he is a far right winger on budget issues and considerations.

        Soon enough but, the 37% will dwindle to 10% once the public finally realizes they have been had and Trump is giving everyone the “finger”. Like Romney or not, Trump paraded Romney around touting him as his choice for SOS but it was all for show, he never had any intention of appointing Romney as his choice for SOS. He did it to publically humiliate Romney and unfortunately, Romney fell for it because I believe he truly wanted to be of service to the US and was willing to let bygones be bygones.

        When the wheels come off and they will, the damage will be incalculable to America and our friends. Hopefully and I believe it won’t happen, we won’t be drawn into a shooting war again but considering Trump’s behavior before he becomes POTUS, his mouth may write checks that cannot be cashed and then what?

        There is an old saying about no atheists in a foxhole. Well, we are soon going to be in one and if you are an atheist, consider the fact that we are in one now and pray with all of your heart for this country. I know I pray for Trump every night and pray that he will turn out to be a good leader just as I pray for Obama. At this point, that is about all I can do because I do believe this is similar to the people of Israel in the Old Testament when they wanted a king and they were warned about having one. But, their desires were fulfilled against God’s prophet’s advice and in the end, they paid dearly. The Trump voters wanted him and now they have him and it is my belief they along with everyone else will pay dearly for it.

          1. Bart

            I did a lot of rambling but was continually interrupted when writing my comment. Sorry for the repetition on some things. As you can see, my frustrations are growing as each day passes and another Trump story is published that further demonstrates his total lack of ability and qualifications to be POTUS.

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          “When the wheels come off and they will, the damage will be incalculable to America and our friends.”

          Exactly what I’ve been saying for the past year…

  2. Bart

    We have both been saying the same thing except you have been more vociferous while I have been less so. I wanted to temper remarks with the point that Trump would garner support when the news media, entertainment industry, Democrats, and especially many Republicans went after him with a vengeance. In the deepest recesses of my heart and soul, while I was reasonably sure Clinton would win and stated so, there was a troubling doubt and the realization that Trump could actually win. The more Clinton ignored Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Florida, North Carolina, and a couple of other key states, the realization grew into more of a 50% chance that Trump could pull it off.

    The reasons Clinton lost have been well documented and she is making speeches that places the blame for her losing on Russia, Comey, emails, Benghazi, the KKK, racism, sexism, and almost every other excuse possible. However, in the end, the person Hillary Clinton needs to blame is herself. If she had worked hard for the votes of ALL, not the identity groups she catered to almost exclusively and if she had spent more time in the key states she lost, the election would have been hers without doubt. Instead of spending time with high dollar donors that excluded the voters who actually count, if she had spent more time running a positive campaign instead of letting Trump get to her and responding with ads reminiscent of the one in 1964 that cost Goldwater dearly, she would have won.

    When women went to the polls and a much higher number voted for Trump than expected, ever wonder why? After reading articles in the NYT, WaPo, and other news media outlets that do lean left, even they had to report that the number of women who voted for Trump was not what they or Clinton expected. A few of the articles focused on the economy as the reason because the one thing women do consider high on the list of what is important to them is their family’s financial security and Trump addressed it directly, Hillary did not.

    We can ask the question, offer opinions based on news reports, our own emotions, our own reasoning, and all of the other musings one can think about but in the end, one question still reigns and that is how is it that Trump with much larger negative ratings according to all of the polling punditry industry reporting that Clinton would win still defeat her? Trying to use the popular vote excuse is not valid since the 2.8 million advantage for Clinton comes from a few cities in 3 or 4 states.

    On Monday, the Electoral College will confirm Trump as the next POTUS. A POTUS who uses social media, especially Twitter to communicate his barbs and boasts. The original definition of a tweet is the “chirp of a small or young bird”. Maybe the definition apropos for Trump is the “chirp of a small, vindictive, and immature mind” or birdbrain if one prefers.” And maybe Clinton should be identified as Mayze, the bird who left Horton to hatch her egg while she spent her time in Palm Beach. Clinton left the key swing states alone and Trump sat on the nest and hatched the egg, i.e., the votes that put him over the top.

    Just some thoughts and comments for a nice Sunday morning.

  3. Lynn Teague

    My mother was a nurse with the 95th General Hospital during the Battle of the Bulge, and was a member of Veterans of the B of the B until her death. She had some very sad stories, among them soldiers with terrible injuries from frostbite, along with the other wounds of war. She managed to be personally chewed out by Patton twice. Once was for not wearing a helmet, apparently a common event. The other was for being among the unit officers after they managed to get lost behind German lines for three days. I can’t imagine that anyone trusted my mother with a map. Very bright woman, hopeless with a map.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Yes, thanks so much for sharing that, Lynn!

      Do you have a picture of your mother in uniform? I’d like to share it here on the thread.

      Did you ever see “Band of Brothers?” I’m reminded of the heroic Belgian nurse whom the medic, Eugene Roe, meets in Bastogne, doing what she can to care for the wounded with insufficient supplies. It’s a touching (but ultimately sad) story. The nurse was apparently supposed to be Renée Lemaire, although the meeting may not have happened….

  4. Lynn Teague

    I haven’t seen Band of Brothers. It is on my list of things to go back to.

    My mother avoided WW II movies after the war. The first she wanted to see was Saving Private Ryan; apparently a lot of time had to pass. She said it was very accurate.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Well, this is sort of Saving Private Ryan II — except that it’s about real people. Made by the same people, with the same production values. It maybe be the best thing that was ever made for television…

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        “Band of Brothers” is also one of my best ideas that I never acted upon. But as it turned out, I didn’t have to.

        After I saw “Saving Private Ryan,” I got to thinking that it would be great to see a true story get that treatment. Then, I heard or read about (but did not see until later) “From the Earth to the Moon,” which like “Private Ryan” was produced by Tom Hanks. I thought, Even better — a high-quality true-life mini-series.

        Then, I read Stephen Ambrose’s Band of Brothers and thought, This is it! This is perfect! A big, sweeping story about a bunch of everyday heroes that you can follow through the whole war — and they never had a dull moment. From D-Day to Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest, they were in the thick of the action.

        So for some time I thought about writing a letter to Hanks and Steven Spielberg, urging to give that book the “Private Ryan” treatment, only in a series instead of a feature film. I would send a copy to Ambrose.

        But I never wrote the letter. I felt like that would be kind of a dorky, fanboy thing to do, and it was highly unlikely they would ever even see the letter. And if they did, unless they had read the book, they wouldn’t know what a great idea it was.

        Next thing I knew, I read that Spielberg and Hanks were making “Band of Brothers” for HBO. And when it came out, it was wonderful.

        Yeah, I know it’s irrational, but since what they did was EXACTLY my idea, I’ve congratulated myself on how well it turned out ever since…

Comments are closed.