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War in the Snow: An Ardennes Experience

As we celebrate the 2014 holiday season, we also observe the 70th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge. I hope you enjoy this article about my father’s journey during that pivotal event in history...

War in the Snow: An Ardennes Experience
My Father’s Journey of December 1944 – January 1945

Thoughts on Authentic Leadership
By John P. Schreitmueller

As a boy I occasionally succeeded in conning my father into playing “war” with me. I admired the combat boots, canteens, cartridge belt and other memorabilia, some of it from German soldiers his unit had taken prisoner, which he had brought home from World War II. I watched “Combat” on TV and often pictured him, through the romanticized lenses of youth, charging Nazi machine gun nests with other scrappy GIs. When I asked him what it was like, his favorite answer was, “cold.” We seldom talked about his wartime experience until I returned from my tour of duty overseas as a Marine officer many years later. Then, we communicated. On a deep, deep level.

Listening to my father, my interest in what became known as the Battle of the Bulge piqued. I queried him relentlessly. On September 30, 1986, my father wrote me a letter on his Smith Corona typewriter, detailing his wartime journey. It included maps and a chronology that would have made quite a book. On this, the 70th anniversary of the desperate struggle that took place in the Ardennes forest between American fighting forces and those of the German army, I want to share what he shared with me.

He was 22 years old. After infantry training at Fort Maxey near Paris, TX and a brief stay at Camp Miles Standish in Taunton, MA, my father left Boston Harbor for war in Europe in September 1944. It had been about 90 days since Allied forces landed in Normandy. World War II was in its fifth year, and America had been officially at war with Germany and Japan since December 1941.

By late 1944, Allied forces fighting in Europe were increasingly convinced Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich was all but defeated. The mighty Luftwaffe, once master of the skies throughout Europe and the war in the East, now rose only defensively as fuel, equipment and trained pilots grew scarce. In the ranks, where crack SS, Wehrmacht, and Panzer troops had won the war in the West in 1940, older soldiers and members of the Hitler Youth, whose units were often comprised of boys of 16 or so, were pressed into service to fill gaps in line organizations as Germany hemorrhaged men and equipment. The Kriegsmarine, Germany’s proud navy, whose U-Boats once threatened Britain’s very existence, had been rendered ineffective by sonar technology and the breaking of classified German command code, INIGMA, by British intelligence. Between approximately June and September of 1944 alone, Germany suffered over 1 million casualties, of which about half were in action in the West (MacDonald, 1984).

And yet…

So it was on November 14, 1944, PFC John I. Schreitmueller, U.S. Army, arrived, via Southampton England and LeHavre, France, near the small town of Losheimergraben on the Belgian/German border and a deep, fir wood known as the Ardennes forest. His unit, Company K, 2nd Battalion (unverified), 394th Infantry Regiment, 99th Infantry Division, as were all Allied combat outfits in the area, was tasked with destroying German resistance and pressing the attack into Germany. The ultimate goal was to force German surrender and end the European war.

At the time of my father’s arrival on the front lines, American maneuver battalions were deployed across significant lines; their supply convoys temporarily stretched to the limit after the Normandy landings, and subsequent advance across France to the German border region.

He wrote of November 14, 1944:
  • Losheimergraben, on German border. Reinforced foxhole in woods near Bucholz RR station. First contact with enemy. Occasional harassing fire and patrol activity. Otherwise a relatively quiet area.

What he did not know, nor did his buddies in foxholes nearby, nor did Major General Walter E. Lauer, Commanding Officer of the 99th Infantry Division, nor did the entire Allied command, were the superbly executed plans the Germans had devised in September to launch a devastating offensive through the Ardennes forest with the goal of cutting Allied forces in half and taking the port of Antwerp. The German codename for the plan was Wacht Am Rhein. To ordinary German foot soldiers, the initiative was simply The Ardennes Offensive.

The warning signals were reminiscent of the type that surrounded the Titanic sinking. Allied commanders indeed had information suggesting the Germans were up to something. Local citizens spoke of vast amounts of military equipment moving on the German side of the border. Americans on the lines heard rumblings in the forest that were atypical of patrols or small units. And there were other, significant, indicators. But General Eisenhower, General Montgomery, General Bradley and their aides did not piece together key elements of the puzzle. Only General Patton anticipated the onslaught few Allied officers felt the Germans remained capable of mounting. He was not convinced the German military was beaten, and he pressed his Third Army relentlessly to prepare. Regardless.

My father wrote:
  • December 15, 1944: I drew lots to see the Marlene Dietrich USO show in Honsfeld on 12/16. Left my squad to spend night at forward CP (Command Post) in customs house at the Losheimergraben crossroads, and clean myself up.

SS Obersturbannfuhrer (Lieutenant Colonel) Joachim Peiper was a disciplined German Panzer commander, and was selected by SS Oberstgruppenfuhrer (Colonel-General, roughly equal to a full 4-Star American General in rank) Sepp Dietrich and other top commanders to lead the initial thrust through the Ardennes, into the American lines, and to help pave the way for combined German forces to assault toward Antwerp. His unit, designated Kampfgruppe Peiper, following a massive German artillery attack, crashed through the forest early in the morning of December 16, 1944.

According to my father on December 16, 1944:
  • 5:30 AM: German artillery barrage begins.
  • 12:00 PM: First serious contact with enemy.
  • 4:00 PM: Forward CP moved to rear CP in woods off road to Munningen. Shelling and defensive action all night against elements of 12th VG Div. (German 12th Volksgrenadier Division, a major infantry unit. Parenthesis and note in italics are mine).

The Germans had launched the unthinkable: a massive, well-coordinated land attack. Under the cloak of miserable weather, the German offensive was purposely planned to take place when Allied air power, which by that point in the war was superior, would be either ineffective or unable to operate entirely. Kampfgruppe Peiper and multiple assisting German Panzer, mechanized infantry and regular infantry units decimated the Allied lines, sending American soldiers racing for cover and dropping back to defensive positions. The Americans had been caught by surprise in what remains the largest intelligence error in the history of the U.S. Army. And my father, expecting to see a USO show, found himself back on the front lines with his M-1 Garand rifle.

Let’s join my father as the Battle of the Bulge unfolded:

December 17, 1944
  • 10:00 AM: I am assigned to take Co records and supplies to Murringen, with Co jeep driver (he was tasked with keeping his rifle company records and supplies from falling into enemy hands). Artillery and mortar shelling all along route from Kampfgruppe Peiper, then in Honsfeld. Also encountered some Greif men (in American uniforms). They waved; so did we. (We were outnumbered). (The Germans had inserted highly trained troops, who spoke English and wore American uniforms, into the American lines to protect vital bridge crossings, destroy Allied communication lines, and to disrupt the American defense. It was a group of these disguised German soldiers whom my father encountered).
  • 12:00 PM: At Murringen. Took defensive action against 12th VG and some of Peiper’s patrols.
  • 3:00 PM: Withdrew with jeep, joining heavy traffic over farm roads and logging trails through Krinkelt, Wirtzfeld, Berg, and Nidrum under heavy fire. Slow going. Had to remove wreckage to pass by.
  • 11:00 PM: Arr Camp Elsenborn. Spent night in Belgian army barracks. Shelling all night. No direct hits.
December 18, 1944
  • Sourbrodt, outside Elsenborn. Temporarily attached to a Corps artillery unit in open field along with other stragglers (his original unit, Company K, had been sliced by the German onslaught and he was one of scores of stragglers who had been separated from their original units). Worked with artillerymen and slept in slit trench.
December 20, 1944
  • Elsenborn Ridge. Rejoined Co. K which was regrouped on crest of ridge minus most of 2nd platoon and other casualties. We were precisely at the point of the northern shoulder of the Bulge. Dug a small but deep foxhole with Ken Coyne, a survivor of the 2nd platoon.
  • We had the famous 2nd Div. on our left, and the remnants of the 393rd and 395th regiments of the 99th to our rear (he is describing sister units that had taken massive casualties). On our right, bending around the corner of the Bulge was the also-famous 1st Div. (Big Red One). We had earned the right to be there (the 99th was relatively new to the combat theater. Here he indicates, through surviving hot combat, his units now felt on equal par with others that had distinguished themselves in previous combat against the Germans).
December 20 – 24, 1944
  • Withstood attacks by 12th VG Div. (the German 12th Volksgrenadier Division); 277th VG Div. (the German 277th Volksgrenadier Division); 12th SS Pzr Div. (the formidable German 12th SS Panzer Division, an elite unit); 3rd Pzr Gr Div.(the German 3rd Panzer Grenadier Division. This must have been terrifying).
December 25, 1944
  • Sixth Panzer Army’s drive to the Meuse is negated. (The German offense begins to crumble as American forces mount a brilliant counterattack).
December 26, 1944
  • Attack by newly-arrived 246th VG Div. (German 246th Volksgrenadier Division).
December 30 – January 1945
  • Both sides settle down to defense and harassment. Constant shelling and patrols. Heavy snows and frigid temperatures. No rest for the weary – either side. 12th SS Pzr Div. moves out to help Peiper. Other enemy divisions neutralized.
February 4, 1945
  • Moved to this shattered town for a rest. Quartered in a hay loft. Got new clothes and rifle.
There are many excellent books on the Battle of the Bulge. One of them, A Time for Trumpets, by Charles B. MacDonald, who commanded a rifle company during the event, is one of them. I bought the book for my father after it was published in 1984, and it served as the catalyst for my discussions with him as we studied it together. To understand the totality of the battle and its ramifications, I highly recommend it.

My father’s closing notes include the following:
  • April 27, 1945. Neustadt. Crossed the Danube.
  • April 29, 1945. Landshut. Took our last prisoners.
  • May 2, 1945. Far as we go. Near Inn River and Austrian border. Ochsenfurt. First occupation duty. Aub. Left from here for trip home via France (Marseille).
After he arrived home, my father met, and eventually married, Helga E. Thiele. Helga was, ironically, the daughter of a German sailor who left Germany to begin a new life in the United States with his wife and Helga, who later became my mother. Paul Thiele, the German sailor, became my grandfather. Known as “Paul the Painter” by his many American friends, an oil painting he made depicts him, to the best of my knowledge, on the keel of his warship, SMS HANSA, a beautiful light cruiser, as it sunk after being torpedoed by a British destroyer. Also to the best of my knowledge, he was horribly wounded, and the Royal Navy picked him out of the water before he drowned. He was a prisoner of war in Great Britain before being repatriated to Germany. He praised the British doctors and nurses who kept him alive, and treated him and his surviving crewmates with dignity. Helga, my mother, was born in Bremerhaven, Germany. I lost her earlier this year.

My father died in 1990. For his bravery in action against a skilled and determined enemy during 1944 – 1945, he was awarded the Bronze Star for Valor. His Bronze Star, Combat Infantryman’s Badge with Wreath and other awards from World War II are displayed next to my Marine Corps memorabilia at home. I think of him often, there in the snow.

I apologize for errors or omissions, which I strived to eliminate. If they exist, they are strictly unintentional.


References

Farrar, W. T., & Haseltine, J. L. (circa 1945). The combat history of the 394th infantry
regiment. Location unknown: 394th Infantry Special Services.

MacDonald, C. (1984). A time for trumpets. New York, NY: Bantam Books.



John P. Schreitmueller is the CEO of Resolute Consulting Group LLC, a specialty practice for executive, leadership and career coaching and counseling. Mr. Schreitmueller commanded a Marine Corps infantry rifle platoon overseas. He lives in Atlanta.

Copyright 2014 by Resolute Consulting Group LLC

 

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