When I was about 10 or 11, I received a Battle of the Bulge board game by Avalon Hill for Christmas. The game was complicated and took two or three hours to set up and play. I was the only one among family and friends with the interest and desire to spend that much time. But playing the Americans and the Germans was great for understanding the strategy and tactics employed and the firepower and maneuver capabilities of the divisions, regiments, and battalions on both sides.
This trip to Paris was a chance for this WWII buff to see first hand where the engagements I had replayed many times actually occurred. Getting there from Paris involved some effort – a train from Gare du Nord, with changes in Arras, France and Bruxelles-Midi, and finally a 45-minute bus ride from Libramont, Belgium to Bastogne. The trains are very comfortable and have free WiFi.
The Best Guide One Could Have
Reading about history or playing a board game is one thing. Living through history is another matter altogether. For this tour I chose the only guide I know of who actually witnessed the battle. Henri Mignon’s family lived on a farm just outside Houffalize in Belgium’s Luxembourg Province. Houffalize is about 10 miles from Bastogne. In December 1944, Henri was nine years old. His memories are vivid.
This was a private tour – just Henri and me. I often elect to take private tours. They are more expensive, but can be a better value because customers can tailor the itinerary to fit their interests. There are no time-wasting mandatory stops to buy jewelry or local arts and crafts as with group tours. I hate that.
Civilians in the Battle of the Bulge
Before this tour, I knew little of the effects on the civilian population or their contributions to the Allied cause. Henri Mignon’s family provides an example of what the local population went through. At different times soldiers from the regular German Army and the SS stayed in their home. Henri slept on the floor with the enlisted men while officers took their beds. The reputation of the SS was well deserved. Even regular German soldiers warned Henri’s family about them.
Towards the end of the fighting Henri’s father ventured out of their home to bring water from the well. An artillery shell (probably American) landed nearby with shrapnel hitting him in the chest. Mssr. Mignon was barely able to get back to the house where he bled to death in front of the whole family. Later the fighting destroyed their home. The Mignons never rebuilt it. During the tour we drove by the location. It is just a field now.
At least 3,000 civillians died in the month-long fighting and many thousands more lost their homes and businesses. Despite the terrible price of liberation, Henri and the local population were and remain extremely grateful to the American forces who also suffered greatly. The battle took the lives of approximately 20,000 Americans with about another 80,000 wounded, captured and missing.
There are numerous stories of the assistance Belgian civilians provided to American soldiers including the remarkable story of Augusta Chiwy, who had a Belgian father and Congolese mother, and Renee Lemaire, the Angels of Bastogne.
Prelude to the Battle
The German Ardennes Offensive (Battle of the Bulge, Dec. 44 – Jan 45) was the last desperate major offensive to avoid total defeat of German forces on the Western Front in WWII. Following the breakout of Allied forces from the Normandy beachhead in July 1944, German forces were in full retreat. In the Fall of 1944, the Allies attempted a bold and risky series of airborne landings deep behind German lines. The objective was to seize an intact bridge over the Rhine river at Arnhem, Holland (Operation Market Garden). Heavy divisions of the US and British armies would have used that bridgehead to sweep into Germany likely ending the war in Europe by Christmas 1944.
When that plan failed narrowly (the source of the phrase “a bridge too far”) and to recover from the costly Battle of the Hurtgen Forest, Allied forces paused. Because the Allies viewed the German Army as being all but defeated and the wooded Ardennes as unsuitable for an attack, that sector of the front was lightly defended by newly arrived units and a few veteran divisions replenishing their complements of soldiers and equipment. As an indication of just how off guard the American’s were, Marlene Dietrich was on the front lines with a USO tour when the first artillery shells began falling.
The German Plan
With Allied armies nearing their borders on the east and west and suffering losses of men and material at irreplaceable rates, the Germans were desperate. Their generals saw a possible way out – if they could punch through the American lines in the Ardennes, seize bridges over the Meuse, and then capture the port of Antwerp, they might be able to negotiate a deal with the British and Americans that would allow turning their full attention to the Soviets in the east.
The plan to capture Antwerp had a slim chance to succeed at least temporarily. Whether the Germans could have negotiated the kind of deal they wanted is another matter. And if the attack failed, the resources needed to defend Germany would be all but exhausted.
The tour began when I met Henri Mignon at 09:00 in McAuliffe Square in Bastogne. The square is named for Brigadier General Anthony McAuliffe, the commander of the 101st Airborne Division during the battle. McAuliffe was the division’s second in command. As further evidence of how unprepared the Americans were, Major General Taylor, the division commander, was stateside for the holidays.
Mardasson Memorial and Bastogne War Museum
From McAuliffe Square we drove a short distance to a medieval church in town that was damaged in the battle and then to the Mardasson Monument on the edge of town.
The story of the battle is carved on the walls of the memorial and the names of all 50 states are displayed. Stairs lead to the top. There is a good view of the rolling terrain around Bastogne.
The Bastogne War Museum opened in 2014. It displays various artifacts from WWII and shows film footage shot during the battle.
The barracks of the Belgian Army in Bastogne served as the 101st Airborne Division headquarters during the siege of Bastogne.
Again, Henri was the perfect guide. He was posted here for five years during his career with the Belgian Army. When we visited, the Bastogne Barracks, an active Belgian Army base, was closed to visitors. But Henri knew the guards, and we were allowed to roam the buildings and grounds freely. The structure that housed the 101st Airborne headquarters look as they did in the battle.
It was in this building that General McAuliffe received the German demand for surrender and issued his famous reply, “Nuts.” I learned that credit belongs to McAuliffe’s second in command, Lt. Col. Kinnard. When the general wondered how to respond, his Kinnard suggested that McAuliffe repeat what he first said when the demand was delivered. McAuliffe had the good sense to accept the advice.
The former HQ building is now a museum containing photos, dioramas, exhibits, and displays of military equipment related to the battle and HQ operations.
In the battle, units and unorganized groups of African American soldiers fought up and down the line separately and as part of all-white units. Officially, President Harry Truman integrated the US armed services in 1948. Unofficially, the Wehrmacht beat him to it. Its surprise breakthrough necessitated an “all hands on deck” response. In Bastogne, the all Black 333rd and 969th artillery battalions wound up attached to and supporting the 101st Airborne. The 761st tank battalion was another Black unit that fought at Bastogne.
Angles of Bastogne
The photos of two Belgian nurses, the Angeles of Bastogne, are displayed in the museum.
African-Belgian Augusta Chiwy and another civilian nurse, Renee Lemaire happened to be in Bastogne visiting their families on December 16, 1944. Renee’s father ran a hardware store on the square. They volunteered in an aid station for the 10th Armored Division. There is a plaque on the wall of a Chinese restaurant just off the square marking the location of the aid station.
On the night of Christmas Eve, a German bomb hit the aid station killing Renee and more than 30 wounded. Augusta was in an adjoining building and survived although she was blown through a wall. She continued to treat wounded soldiers for the remainder of the siege and even donned an uniform to assist wounded under fire. (A photo of the demolished aid station is found second from the left on the top line of photos on the plaque for the Nurses of Bastogne memorial, above.)
Renee’s story received a fair amount of notoriety. Chiwy was largely overlooked by history. In 2011, a researcher located Augusta in a nursing home in Belgium and brought her story to light. King Albert II of Belgium bestowed on her the title Knight of the Order of the Crown. That is the same honor Renee Lemaire had received years before. Augusta Chiwy passed in 2015 at age 94.
Augusta and Renee are buried near each other in the Bastogne cemetery. They are depicted in the Band of Brothers TV series although it incorrectly shows the aid station being located in a church and has them tending to 101st Airborne casualties.
Some buildings of the Belgian Barracks base are used to restore military vehicles of all descriptions used in the WWII. A large storage facility houses dozens and dozens of these vehicles.
German Panther tank.
British Firefly tank. A Sherman tank fitted with a 76mm gun.
(Click for captions)
We spent only an hour at the barracks. Some could easily spend hours in the vehicle storage building alone.
Bois Jacques – the Band of Brothers
The Bois Jacques is located a few kilometers north of Bastogne near the village of Foy.
When Bastogne was surrounded, this area of the perimeter was held by Easy Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne Division. Easy Company is famous as the unit from the Band of Brothers television miniseries. Remnants of foxholes used by Easy Company can still be found in Bois Jacques.
Prisoner of War Massacres
During the battle German forces executed several hundred American POWs and Belgian civilians.
Malmedy (Baugnez) Massacre
One of the more famous incidents was the massacre of American POWs known as the Malmedy Massacre. The massacre did not occur in Malmedy, Belgium but in the nearby crossroads settlement of Baugnez. On December 17, 1944, one of the lead elements of Joachim Piper’s 1st Waffen SS Regiment surprised and captured more than 100 Americans in a field artillery observation battalion at the Baugnez crossroads. It is unclear what prompted the SS to begin firing on the prisoners. When the shooting started, though, prisoners began running. Around 20 or so managed to escape. Eighty-five did not.
African-American POWs got equal treatment, if not worse. A group of 11 Black soldiers from the 333rd Field Artillery Battalion (the same group that provided fire support in Bastogne) were captured near the hamlet of Wereth, Belgium. A unit of Waffen SS, soldiers from conquered territories who volunteered to fight for Germany and were particularly nasty Nazis, tortured and executed them.
We stopped briefly near Gouvy, Belgium at a noteworthy site that had nothing to do with the battle. On September 8, 1944, this was the location of the first V2 launch against an Allied target. The missile was directed towards Paris and caused moderate damage in Maisons-Alfort. The V2, the brainchild of Werner von Braun, was the world’s first guided ballistic missile. Von Braun later led the development of NASA rockets that put men on the moon.
Henri said that Belgian civilians feared V1 flying bombs more than V2s because the V1s often failed on the way to their targets. It was prudent to take cover whenever a V1 was overhead.
For me, one of the more startling revelations of the tour was the fact that Allied bombers intentionally flattened the town of Houffalize, Belgium to make it hard for the Germans to retreat with tanks and heavy equipment. Many civilians died. Still support for the Allies among the local population never wavered.
Since I visited Bastogne during the week of Veterans’ Day in the United States, I must thank for their service my sister, Lt. Cmdr. Lucia Spears, MD, USN who served at the Pearl Harbor medical facility, brother Edward Polley, USAF vet who served stateside, nephew, Sgt. Evan Polley USMC, Iraq and Afghanistan vet currently based on Okinawa, Japan, USAF vet cousin Joseph Douglas and uncles Richard Douglas and Joseph Douglas who served in the Army Air Corps in WWII.
Most importantly, I commend the WWII service of my father, Sherman Polley, a vet of the US Army operations in the Pacific and stepfather, John Spears, a vet of the US Army operations in the Italian Campaign. Both now deceased. They received a Bronze Star and Purple Heart, respectively.
The military service of those in my family is not atypical for African Americans. That is why it burns me to no end when the draft-dodging current US Commander in Chief calls African American football players unpatriotic “sons of bitches” for respectfully protesting social injustice during the national anthem at professional football games. For his part, Trump was in Paris on November 11, 2018, for the centennial celebration of the end of WWI. But rain prevented him from visiting a war cemetery to pay respects to American dead. The political rants are an aberration in my posts; however I feel strongly about this topic.