Thursday, November 5, 2020


Straw and rags muffled gun wheels and horses’ hooves as twenty German divisions lumbered into their final assembly areas on Friday night, December 15. Breakdown crews with tow trucks stood ready along roads that now carried only one-way traffic, and military policemen were authorized to shoot out the tires of any vehicle violating march discipline. For the last kilometer leading to the line of departure, soldiers portaged ammunition by hand or on their backs. Quartermasters issued ration packets of “special vitalizing and strengthening foods,” including fifty grams of genuine coffee, grape-sugar tablets, chocolate, fruit bars, and milk powder. “Some believe in living but life is not everything!” a soldier from the 12th SS Panzer Division wrote his sister. “It is enough to know that we attack and will throw the enemy from our homeland. It is a holy task.” Two hundred thousand assault troops packed into an assembly area three miles deep. The initial blow by seven panzer divisions and thirteen of infantry, bolstered by almost two thousand artillery tubes and a thousand tanks and assault guns, would fall on a front sixty-one miles wide. Five more divisions and two heavy brigades waited in the second wave, giving the Germans roughly a five-to-one advantage over the opposing U.S. forces in artillery and a three-to-one edge in armor. The best of Rundstedt’s divisions had 80 percent of their full complement of equipment, others but half. Panzer columns carried enough fuel to travel one hundred miles under normal cruising conditions, which existed nowhere in the steep, icy Ardennes. Few spare parts or antitank guns were to be had, but for a holy task perhaps none were needed. Hitler had indeed staked the future of his Reich on one card. The final OB West war diary entry on Friday night declared, “Tomorrow brings the beginning of a new chapter in the campaign in the West.”

In the red-roofed Belgian army barracks that served as the VIII Corps command post in Bastogne, champagne corks popped on Friday night to commemorate the anniversary of the corps’s arrival in Britain a year earlier. The commander, Major General Troy H. Middleton, had reason to be proud of his men’s combat record in Normandy and in the reduction of Brest. A Mississippian who had enlisted as a private in 1910, Middleton by November 1918 was the youngest American colonel in World War I and, in George Marshall’s judgment, “the outstanding infantry regimental commander on the battlefield in France.” Leaving the Army in 1937 to become dean and then vice president of Louisiana State University, Middleton returned to uniform in 1942, commanding the 45th Division through the Sicily and Salerno campaigns before taking corps command as an Eisenhower favorite. Now he drank a final toast to battles past and future before retiring to his sleeping van. A few miles to the east, the faint clop of horses and a growl of engines in low gear drifted to American pickets along the Our River, demarcating Luxembourg from Germany. Their report of disturbing noises in the night ascended the chain of command from one headquarters to the next, with no more heed paid than had been paid to earlier portents. Middleton’s command post in Bastogne issued a weather forecast for Saturday—“ Cloudy, snow beginning around 1300. Visibility 2 miles”—and a three-word battle summary for the Ardennes: “Nothing to report.”

Rick Atkinson, (2013-10-22). The Liberation Trilogy (Kindle Locations 42751-42757).

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