This week, Sarah from Travel with Me, hosts the Friendly Friday Challenge and her topic is “Meet.” She challenges us to discuss people we met during travel. I’m sharing the story of Henri Mignon, a guide in Bastogne, Belgium who offers tours of nearby World War Two battlefields.
I met Henri in November 2018, when he served as the guide during a private World War II Battle of the Bulge tour in the Ardennes Region of Belgium. The tour was a last-minute side trip arranged during a stay in Paris, France that happened to coincide with the celebration of the centennial of the armistice that ended World War I.
By way of background, the Battle of the Bulge, December 16, 1944 – January 16, 1945, also known as the German Ardennes Offensive, was the last major German offensive on the Western Front in WWII and a desperate gamble to avoid total defeat in Western Europe. Following the breakout of Allied forces from the Normandy beachhead in July 1944, German forces were in full retreat.
In late 1944, the Allies viewed the German Army as all but defeated. Being deemed unsuitable for an attack, the wooded Ardennes on the border between Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg was lightly defended by newly arrived, untested American units and a few veteran divisions replenishing their complements of soldiers and equipment.
The German high command saw a possible way out of their desperate situation – if they could punch through the American lines in the Ardennes, seize bridges over the Meuse, then capture the port of Antwerp, Germany 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.
On December 16, 1944, using veteran, well-equipped armored and infantry divisions, the Nazis launched a massive offensive across an 80 mile-wide (129 km) front in the Ardennes on the border between Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg. It caught the American forces totally off-guard. The Germans penetrated as far as 50 miles (80 km) behind the original lightly defended American lines. It took a month of hard fighting to reestablish the original lines before the offensive began. The battle took the lives of nearly 20,000 Americans with about another 70,000 wounded, captured or missing. The Battle of the Bulge was the U.S. Army’s costliest battle of WWII.
I had a long-standing interest in the battle and at one time knew a fair amount about its major engagements from books, movies, TV shows, and an Avalon-Hill Battle of the Bulge board game that was a gift I received as a young teen. Visiting the Ardennes region on the borders between Belgium, Germany, and Luxembourg was a good way to refresh my memory and see places that were just points on the map of the board game I’d often played many years ago.
For the tour I chose the only guide I was aware of who actually witnessed the battle. Henri Mignon and his 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.
Some of the memories are unpleasant. Henri recalled soldiers from the regular Germany Army and the soldiers in the SS staying in their home. They were warned about the SS’s reputation for ruthlessness. Towards the end of the battle Henri’s father was killed by an artillery shell when he went out to get water from the well.
Later, Henri served as an officer in the Belgian Army. He was posted for time at the Heinz Barracks in Bastogne that served as the headquarters for the U.S. 101st Airborne Division during the battle. Because of Henri’s service in the army and having guided numerous clients over the years, we were allowed to tour the base and see the preserved 101st Airborne HQ and museum even though the base was closed to visitors at the the time.
Henri is a great source of living history. I recommend checking his availability if you are ever in the area. He has a wealth of information to share. It would be a good idea to see him soon as I don’t know how much longer he will be offering tours. My post about the tour in 2018 is here.