The Ardennes; and the WWII Battle of the Bulge.

My big strong grandpa passed away in 2007.  The WWII stories he told me were about watching porpoises swim alongside the ship that took them over to England, the cool trains that took them from England to the Channel for their sail to Europe, a singer with a beautiful voice at the USO in Liege, and being assigned to build POW camps in the last weeks of the war.  He didn’t say anything about the battles.  He was a Combat Engineer.

Engineers poster

In battle, the engineers would precede the infantry and sweep for mines, clear pathways with explosives, build temporary bridges, repair tanks, and whatever it took to keep their division on the move and the enemy at a distance.  They sometimes blew up bridges and blocked roads so the enemy couldn’t use them.  When battle circumstances called for it, such as in the Battle of the Bulge, the engineers also operated as Infantry.  Below are sample pictures of what combat engineers were doing in the Ardennes.  Notice they are wearing dark colored uniforms.  In December and January 1944-45, the Ardennes had record snowfall and cold.  Their Division was without camouflage against the snow.

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The Battle of the Bulge got its name from the Germans’ surprise attack and advance into Belgium in mid-December 1944, that created a ‘bulge’ outward from the Siegfried Line.  This map from www.army.mil shows the advance and the bulge.

Battle of the Bulge map

After my grandpa was gone, I continued to read published accounts from his unit, and looked up locations on Google Maps, determined to learn what his Division had been through.  Then it occurred to me that I had a little stash of frequent flier miles.  So, I began planning my first trip to Europe, to see these places with my own eyes.  The last week of October 2008, I left for Belgium.

The Ardennes in Person.

I stayed in the town of St. Vith, which was central to the start of the Battle of the Bulge.  The town was virtually destroyed in the battle, but its Büchel Tower from the 1300s mostly survived, and was repaired.  It had been damaged in fires and battle in prior centuries.

St Vith bomb damage

The town has erected a memorial to the US soldiers of 1944-45.

St Vith 106th memorial aSt Vith 106th memorial placque a

The owner of the inn where I stayed had her own personal story from the battle.  She was 9 years old in 1944, and with her parents had to hide out in the woods for the month from late December to late January.  Our GIs gave them food and helped them survive.  As an inn owner, she has hosted many returning GIs and their families, and proudly showed me this certificate hanging on the wall in the inn’s restaurant.

Certificate for St Vith Inn Owners

In my rental car, I covered as much ground as daylight would allow for three days.  The fall colors were stunning, as opposed to the bitter cold and snow the soldiers endured that winter.

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St Vith to Houffalize routeJanuary 13 1945 BelgiumTree lined road 2 a

This 20 km stretch of road from St. Vith to Malmedy is still there.

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Malmedy-St Vith Route signs aMalmedy road

The field where the Malmedy Massacre took place on December 17, 1944, is preserved.

Malmedy

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Another massacre also took place that day in Ligneuville, between Malmedy and St Vith.

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The owners of this Ligneuville inn were able to distract German officers and save the lives of several captured GIs, who would have been executed in the massacre otherwise.  Ligneuville hotel a

The village of Poteau, 10 km from St Vith, was the site of the longest US tank battle.

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Poteau

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My grandpa was not at Bastogne, but I did visit there, as it was significant to the last part of the battle, and only 50 km from my St Vith base.

Taking a break from the seriousness of the battle for a moment:  One of my fave movies, ‘If It’s Tuesday, This Must be Belgium‘ (1969), has a light-hearted scene of an American and a German visiting the Bastogne Mardasson Memorial, telling their battle memories.

For some views inside the Bastogne War Museum at the Mardasson, check out this informative post by the Diverting Journeys blogger, on her recent visit there.

On my last afternoon, I visited the American military cemetery, at Henri Chapelle, Belgium, where nearly 8,000 of our GIs are buried on 57 acres overlooking a beautiful Ardennes valley.  Another 450 names of missing GIs are listed on a marble tablet under the entrance canopy.  The cemetery attendant printed me the names and locations of the six members of my grandpa’s battalion who are buried there, so I could visit each one.

Henri Chappelle aHenri Chappelle2 a

Henri Chapelle Flag a

The closest simulations in movies to what I learned on my visit, and what my grandpa described, are probably Fury and Saving Private Ryan.

The Wereth Eleven documentary (available on Amazon Prime and Netflix) tells about yet another particularly brutal massacre that happened at the same time as the Malmedy and Ligneuville massacres.  Wereth is 13 km from St Vith.

 

The day after returning home to Kansas, I voted in the 2008 Presidential Election.  Then a few days after that, it was Veterans Day with my own new realization of what that means.

About planning a trip to the Ardennes:  There are quite a few people in the area who will assist and advise someone planning a personalized visit to the battlefields and related sites.  They were truly kind and helpful to me.

About that singer with the beautiful voice at the USO in Liege.  This was her song.

 


Poppies

It’s been awhile since I’ve seen anyone selling poppies here for Veterans Day, so I’ve now bought myself a jewelry poppy brooch to wear each year.  It came from the UK Poppy Shop, which has a great, ever-growing selection of affordable poppy jewelry, with proceeds going to the Royal British Legion.

Poppy Broach

DIY Poppies:

18 thoughts on “The Ardennes; and the WWII Battle of the Bulge.

    1. Thank you. I was overwhelmed with their gratitude toward our GIs, and still am. It hurts to know the soldiers who didn’t survive never got to experience that gratitude. Many thought they had failed because initially they weren’t able to hold the area. If only they knew.

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      1. The willing sacrifice they gave was beyond heroic and the effect it still is being felt today. I had no idea they felt that way today…still.

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  1. Looks like we visited a lot of the same places, though I bet it was even more special for you because of your family connection. I’m trying to visit some of the places my grandpa went to also, though I only found out exactly where he was from paperwork we found after he died, because, like your grandpa, he only talked about stuff like the boat over and the sites he saw, rather than the battles.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. Yes, definitely! I can’t believe he wrote a journal stating what he was doing every single day he was in the Army, and never told us about it. It was just in a shoebox in a random old spiral bound notepad that he’d also written shopping lists in years later – if I hadn’t happened to flip through it, it might have been thrown away!

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      2. It was clearly written after the war, and was really just a factual account of where he was and what he was doing rather than like, a place where he put his thoughts and feelings, but still really cool! I also found a load of photographs that he took, and of course the letters that he wrote to my grandma while he was away, so I guess I am really lucky to have all that, though I still wish I could have asked him about everything when he was alive.

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      3. That is truly a priceless keepsake. Photos and letters too. I empathize with you wanting to ask him about everything. I know how that feels (but without the notes and photos, in my case). So many questions, if we’d only known what to ask when we could.

        Liked by 1 person

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