When I was about 10 or 11, I received as a Christmas present a Battle of the Bulge board game by Avalon Hill. The game was complicated and took two or three hours to set up and play. Among family and friends, I was the only one with enough interest to devote that much time and effort. But playing the Americans and the Germans was great for understanding the strategy and tactics and the firepower and maneuver capabilities of the combat units 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, Belgium and finally a 45-minute bus ride from Libramont, Belgium to Bastogne. At least the trains were comfortable and had 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 remain 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 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 civilians 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 or missing.
There are numerous stories of the assistance Belgian civilians provided to American soldiers including the remarkable story of the Angeles of Bastogne, Augusta Chiwy, the daughter of a Belgian veterinarian from Bastogne and his Congolese wife, and Renee Lemaire, a nurse whose family also lived in 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. 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 British and Americans launched a series of bold and risky 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 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 Americans 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. However if the attack failed, the resources needed to defend Germany would be nearly 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 Memorial 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 where there is a good view of the rolling terrain around Bastogne.
The Bastogne War Museum is located adjacent to the Mardasson Memorial. It opened in 2014. It displays various artifacts from WWII and shows film footage shot during the battle.
Bastogne (Heintz) Barracks
Early in the fighting, German forces surrounded the 101st Airborne and other units in Bastogne. The barracks of the Belgian Army in Bastogne served as the 101st Airborne Division headquarters. It was the center of the defense of Bastogne by the outnumbered and outgunned American forces. The Americans held on valiantly avoiding annihilation by the skin of their teeth.
Again, Henri was the perfect guide. He was posted here for several years during his career with the Belgian Army. When we arrived, the Bastogne Barracks, an active Belgian Army base, was closed to visitors. But Henri knew the guards. We were allowed to roam the buildings and grounds freely.
The structure that housed the 101st Airborne headquarters looks as it 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 Division Operations Officer, Lt. Col. Harry Kinnard. When the general wondered how to respond, Kinnard suggested that McAuliffe repeat what he first said when the German letter was delivered. McAuliffe had the good sense to accept the advice.
The former HQ 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
Photos of two Belgian nurses, the Angeles of Bastogne, are displayed in the museum.
African-Belgian Augusta Chiwy, who was attending nursing school in Leuven, Belgium, and another civilian nurse, Renee Lemaire happened to be in Bastogne visiting their families when the Germans attacked on December 16, 1944. Renee’s father ran a hardware store on the square. The store is now a restaurant, Pizzeria Giorgi, which is next to Hotel Giorgi where I stayed.
In response to a plea from 10th Armored Division physician Captain John “Jack” Prior, Renee and Augusta volunteered in the division aid station. There is a plaque on the wall of a Chinese restaurant just off the square on Rue Neufchâteau marking the aid station’s location.
On the night of Christmas Eve 1944, a German bomb scored a direct hit on the aid station killing Renee and about 30 wounded. Prior and Augusta were in an adjoining building and survived although she was blown through a wall.
The aid station was relocated to a building at the Bastogne Barracks where Augusta and Dr. Prior continued to treat wounded soldiers for the remainder of the siege. They also made several forays to the front lines to treat and evacuate wounded.
One particularly daring mission took place right on Mardasson Hill, now the site of the Mardasson Memorial. Prior and Augusta came under intense rifle, machine gun and artillery fire while successfully treating and evacuating several critically wounded men. Augusta’s diminutive 5’0″ frame was probably a blessing in that instance as she later discovered several bullets had pierced her clothing.
Renee’s tragic 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. A few months after being knighted, the U.S. Army awarded Augusta the Civilian Award for Humanitarian Service, the highest honor it can give to a civilian. In 2014, Augusta’s hometown recognized her as a Bastogne Citizen of Honor. 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 Bastogne’s medieval church and has them tending to 101st Airborne casualties. In July 2015, a documentary film about Chiwy entitled Searching for Augusta: The Forgotten Angel of Bastogne won the Emmy Award for Historical Documentary.
Some facilities of the Belgian Barracks are used to restore WWII military vehicles of all descriptions. A large storage building 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
Bois Jacques is located a few kilometers north of Bastogne near the village of Foy.
When Bastogne was surrounded, Easy Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, held this area of the perimeter. 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 during the battle 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, a lead element 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.
The Germans did not discriminate. African-American POWs got equal treatment, if not worse. Also on December 17, 11 Black soldiers from the 333rd Field Artillery Battalion (the same unit that provided fire support in Bastogne) were captured near the hamlet of Wereth, Belgium. Waffen SS, soldiers from conquered territories who volunteered to fight for Germany and were particularly nasty Nazis, tortured and murdered 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, a Paris suburb. The V2, the brainchild of Wernher 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 V1s often failed on the way to their targets. It was prudent to take cover whenever a V1 was overhead.
One of the more startling revelations of the tour was the fact that Allied bombers intentionally turned the town of Houffalize, Belgium to ruble 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.
In 1944, Henri lived just outside this town. It looks much the same now as it did before the bombing. During the battle, a German Panther tank became partially submerged in the river and was abandoned. Later Henri and his friends enjoyed playing in “their” tank.
Driving around the peaceful and beautiful Belgium countryside it was hard to imagine everything that happened here decades ago. However, as many of the monuments and memorials declare, the world must always remember those events and the service and sacrifice of the soldiers and civilians involved so that it never happens again.
Since I visited Bastogne during the week of Veterans’ Day 2018 in the United States, I must thank all who have served in the US military including my sister, Lt. Cmdr. Lucia Spears, MD, USN, who had the good fortune of being based at the Pearl Harbor medical facility, brother Edward Polley, USAF who served stateside, nephew, SSgt. Evan Polley USMC, Iraq and Afghanistan vet currently serving in Okinawa, Japan, USAF vet cousin Joseph Douglas, uncles Richard Douglas and Joseph Douglas who served in the Army Air Corps and William Spears, who served in the Army Signal Corps in WWII.
Most importantly, I commend the WWII service of my father, Pvt. Sherman Polley, a vet of US Army operations in the Pacific and stepfather, Sgt. John Spears, a vet of US Army operations in the Italian Campaign. Both now deceased. They earned a Bronze Star for meritorious service and Purple Heart courtesy of a German “Bouncing Betty” mine, respectively.
The military service of those in my family is not unusual for African Americans. That is why it burns me to no end when the draft-dodging current US Commander in Chief has the nerve to call African-American football players “unpatriotic sons of bitches” for respectfully protesting during the national anthem at professional football games what they sincerely believe is manifest social injustice. For his part, Trump was in Paris on November 11, 2018, for the centennial celebration of the end of WWI. He claimed that rain “prevented” him from visiting a war cemetery to pay respects to American dead. The political comment is an aberration for my posts; however, I feel strongly about this topic.