(Back to "Our History")
CHRISTMAS 1944 IN EUROPE
by Leonard Kyle
It was December of 1944 and the 11th Armored Division had been in England since September. Quite by accident it was being staged from Weymouth to Cherbourg, France beginning about the 15th just as the Germans began their last big push in the "Battle of the Ardennes." Thus, quickly the 11th became the only division which General Eisenhower had in reserve.
After landing from a Landing Ship Tank, my battalion, the 490th Armored Field Artillery, picked up ammunition and spent the night strung out along a back road. Then the division began a quick move across France covering about 100 miles a day. This took us through the heavily destroyed area behind the beaches where the Allies broke out following the D-Day landings.
The day before Christmas was to be remembered as we passed through Paris within two blocks of the Arch de Triumph with many Frenchmen out waving us encouragement. The Arch was visible you looked quickly at just the right intersection. That night we spent in an old military post in the edge of Belgium. Meanwhile, the Germans were nearing the maximum of their penetration of the Allied lines and everyone was concerned about the Allies ability to stop them.
Christmas day dawned bright and clear. Everyone relaxed since we did not have orders to move. The army supply system was functioning, so our cooks prepared a full turkey dinner with all the trimmings. This was served about noon and usually was eaten around the vehicles where hoods and running boards could be used as tables. I had just nicely finished eating when I was ordered to report to the commanding officer. In ten minutes I was given a map with a marked route and a detail of a jeep with driver and a truck full of men. My orders were to mark the route to an apple orchard some distance away where the division was assembling at a point to the west of the two remaining bridges over the river at Sedan. All others had been destroyed and the remaining mined to blow if needed. I left so quickly in the confusion that I left my musette bag with all of my toilet articles.
Since my battalion was to follow at once, speed was essential. I did not know how many critical places would need marking with the limited number of men. Not much difficulty was encountered with the route except in one small village where the road had a fork with no road sign. Fortunately two men were standing on the corner watching us. With my best French accent I waved my arms and shouted "Nizy La Compe." They instantly pointed to the one fork which proved to be the correct road. Eventually in about two hours time, I arrived at our bivouac area with my jeep driver and one man who was posted to turn the unit into the area. By the time I had made a quick five-minute jeep tour of the orchard, the first vehicle was rolling in.
My first big task had been successfully completed in the late afternoon of Christmas 1944. Unfortunately, that was the last Christmas dinner for some of those good men. We were in action on the 31st and suffered many casualties as a result of our part in ending the "Battle of the Bulge."
MY FIRST DAY IN COMBAT
As an officer in the 490th Armored Field Artillery Battalion, my first day in combat in World Was II is well remembered. It was the 31st of December 1944 and the 11th Armored Division was being committed to help cut off the German penetration on the south side of what has come to be known as the "Battle of the Ardennes" or the "Battle of the Bulge."
It was late in the afternoon when we received orders to move into position to the north and west of Neufchateau, Belgium. It was dark before we came near to the front in our assigned sector. Naturally, everyone assumed there was at least a friendly screen out front to protect us as we came into our positions. Our liaison officer and forward observers had been out scouting in the woods in the dark. At this time we had not learned to keep our observer parties on permanent assignment to the tank and infantry units we were supporting. Thus, we did not really know where everyone was, including the Germans.
Nevertheless, we were in position and ready for dawn and our entry into combat. We could not do any surveying or register our guns so we just stuck a pin in a map to use for our firing data. In retrospect, we were very lucky. The next morning our tanks and infantry units charged into action by going past our artillery batteries to the front which was not more than half a mile away. One officer who had been out reconnoitering nearly fainted when in the clear light of day with the knowledge he did not have the night before, realized that he had been within 200 yards of the forward positions of the Germans in the dark. That first day of action near Remagne, Belgium was a little confusing. To begin with, the objectives were two towns with similar names and only a little separation, especially when viewed over rolling hills and many trees. Thus, targets were poorly identified by everyone.
Also it was discovered later that the Germans had jumped off at nearly the same time on a preplanned counter offensive to hold that shoulder of their salient open. This was to permit withdrawal of units which might be trapped. The end result was little real progress forward. Thus, our combat team was pulled out, moved slightly to the rear and under the cover of darkness to the right and back into action at dawn.
Like everyone else, I did my job as best I could. As Executive Officer, my duties were diminished somewhat after I had moved the batteries into position. I really did not have very much to do. In the early afternoon just as a soft snow began to fall. Major Davitt, our commanding officer, came to the conclusion that we would need to take turns sleeping since everyone had been awake for nearly two days. So he ordered, "Kyle, you go to sleep." I rolled out my bedroll beside my jeep about fifty yards behind one of our batteries which was booming away and promptly followed orders. I did not awake until it was time to move out to our new positions. This was the night I froze my feet and did not realize it.
Adjustment to winter combat took some time. Our tanks and vehicles really stood out in the snow. Once while I was forward looking for new gun positions, I saw four of our tanks hit and burned about 500 yards away as fast as you could snap your fingers. They were sitting ducks for the camouflaged 88mm antitank guns. Eventually our tanks were painted white and white sheets were used to cover men on forward patrols. Steel nuts were welded to tank treads for traction on ice and snow.
For about two weeks, action was heavy until the "bulge" was- liquidated. On our final drive to link with our army coming from the north, the P-47's were dive-bombing within 800 yards on both sides of the road we were advancing on. They stayed even or a little ahead of our positions.
ADJUSTING TO COLD IN COMBAT
None of us in the 490th Armored Field Artillery, 11th Armored Division, Third Army were really mentally or physically prepared to live and operate an artillery unit in the cold weather encountered in the winter of 1944-45 in Belgium and Luxemburg. The worst of it coincided with our first two months of combat which made it especially difficult. Of course, we had ample amounts of warm clothing. Footwear was the biggest problem, even though we had been warned to fit our last issue of combat boots on the large side to accommodate more socks.
Just as our unit entered combat, winter set in with a vengeance. The ground froze and it began to snow, eventually accumulating to about one foot. Being an artillery unit, we usually took over a farm house or some building as headquarters. This provided a room which could be blacked out and which would provide a suitable place for a fire direction unit to operate efficiently -- tables, lights, communications and some protection from the elements.
Firing batteries were not so fortunate. They were usually out in an open field. It is amazing how the men were attracted to heat and light, especially at night. Actually, we evacuated more men with frostbite in the first two weeks of action than we did from wounds. It took some time before it was learned that standing by a warm stove inside was the worst thing you could do. A better solution was to dress to keep warm and then never get close to a warm fire long enough to really warm up.
This is what I wore from the inside out: cotton G.I. underwear; a sleeveless sweater knit by my wife and too small to wear over much; a set of 50 percent wool long handles; and an army wool shirt and trousers. Next was a G.I.-issue sweater which buttoned around the neck, followed by a tanker's combat suit which consisted of a blanket wool lining inside a cotton shell. This was in two pieces with a zipper jacket with knit cuffs and overall-like pants with a big top with suspenders and a back that came well up over your kidneys. To this was added an officer's overcoat which had two layers of cotton twill on the outside and a button-in wool liner.
This was especially needed at night or when riding in an open jeep. Footwear was the biggest problem. Army combat boots and one pair of heavy wool socks were not sufficient protection for temperatures in the twenties. The first night of combat our unit was moved a few miles sidewards which took perhaps two hours. During this time I sat still with my feet on the steel bed of an armored half-track. Two days later on a quiet sunny morning I decided to check the firing batteries by walking about a quarter of a mile through soft, knee-deep snow. By the time I returned I had thawed out my partially frozen feet. This was very fortunate since another incident of freezing would have probably meant evacuation and long-term problems. We did have one cook who froze his feet by standing on the deck of a steel-bedded truck frying pancakes for everyone's breakfast. He stood still too long with improper footgear.
How was the footwear problem solved? There were several solutions. If walking over frozen ground was not necessary, combat boots could be removed and a moccasin-type slipper substituted with straw packed inside your rubber four-buckle arctics. The slippers were made locally by women out of two layers of G.I.-issue blankets. Probably most G.I.s had little chance to get these, but eventually they were issued winter-type bootpacks. The other solution was more difficult to arrange.
After about a week of action, I was sent out to locate and identify several of the men in one of our observer parties who had been ambushed while going to the front. One was a Lieutenant (John Cunningham) who had big feet. In his private gear, which it was my duty to dispose of, I found a pair of new boots which were about three sizes too large for me, but just right to wear with several pairs of heavy wool socks. Now I was equipped. Headgear was easier. The knit G.I. cap, which could be turned down over the ears, was comfortable under a helmet.
Some had the regular tanker's headgear that matched the suit, but I had a helmet-type headgear knitted by my mother-in-law. It fit tight and came down to my shoulders with just a slit for the eyes. It was so warm that I only could wear it on the coldest of situations. Since I did not have to use my hands often while out in the cold, keeping them warm was not a very big problem. I had regular G.I. knit gloves. Over them I wore a pair of leather mittens which I had purchased at Sears-Roebuck in the States for less than a dollar. Eventually I picked up a pair of German aviator lined mittens which had the index finger separate. Sleeping in the cold did not present much of a problem to me.
My worst night was spent trying to sleep on the seat of my jeep at the dock in Cherbourg without my bedroll while waiting for two of our batteries to unload. My expected quick trip without gear was delayed because their Landing Ship Tank could not get space to unload. Actually, I seldom slept outside. Usually most personnel of our headquarters unit could get in a barn or house which was unheated. With wall-to-wall bodies on the floor, the temperature rose somewhat.
Since I was in the Army for four years before going to Europe, I had managed to equip myself better than most officers. Early on, before pre-war production sold out, I managed to purchase a fairly good sleeping bag and rubber air mattress. These were placed inside an army-issue canvas bedroll and two army-issue wool blankets were added. These were folded on the top and bottom. Sometimes when it was really cold, I merely pulled off my overcoat, steel helmet and boots, and crawled in. This also minimized get-up and departure time if required.
The above-discussion reminded me of our stay for three nights in a stone farmhouse and barn in a small crossroads in Villereux, Luxemburg. It was snowing and bitter cold. Our unit had numerous sheet iron stoves that came apart in the middle and fit together for packing. Soon the G.I.s had a stove set up in every room which now needed another pane. There was a very large woodpile out back. During our short stay the woodpile evaporated. The extended farm family of eight had been living in the basement and came up only to care for their livestock and to go to the church services the Chaplain held in the barn.
When we left the headquarters, the Battery Commander, who had been acting as liaison with the family, asked if there was anything we could do for them. The man replied, "Well, you burnt our winter fuel supply and we could use some soap." The soap and some food was delivered immediately, but a few days later an army 2-1/2-ton truck delivered them a load of coal from an army depot. I never knew or cared how the arrangement had been handled, but it was not routine.
DRINKING ALCOHOL IN THE ETO
In Europe, even during combat, each officer was entitled to a "whiskey ration" for a nominal fee. This was drawn through regular supply channels each month. This entitled each officer to half a bottle of scotch, a bottle of French champagne and contreau. This formed my preference for scotch which still exists.
After our unit crossed the Rhine River, very little water was consumed, except as coffee. Liberated supplies of very good Rhine and Moselle wines were available. Our headquarters battery usually took over a Gasthaus (small bar and hotel) for headquarters. Usually the beer tap was still working. If it was unhooked, we got the owner to come back and hook it up.
The first big haul of wine was found in the city of Coberg. We arrived about dusk and set up for the night in a factory compound. Between eating, sleeping and doing my shift running the fire direction center, I did not really realize what had happened. When I took my bedroll to my half-track just before departure at daylight, I noticed that all of the bedrolls were neatly lashed under canvass on top of the box on the rear that normally held the rolls. So I put the quiz on the master sergeant in charge. He grinned and said, "You must have been busy last night. Don't you know what we found there?" My answer was, "No what?" He replied, "That factory had a large store of wine, condensed milk, and marmalade for the workers. So we loaded up with all we could carry." He was really not sure what my reaction would be, although most other vehicles had done the same. But when I inquired where my bottle was, he reached behind and under the seat cushion and pulled out a bottle of wine. When I uncorked it and had a big swig, he and the crew just grinned. From then on alcohol was in good supply.
Another incident involving wine occurred as we were crossing a small river over a Bailey bridge in the center of a small village. At the time I was riding in a jeep at the head of our column. To approach the bridge, it was necessary to go down a one-way road parallel to the stream with an eight-foot bank away from the stream. Just before reaching the turn, as I was looking back to check on the column, I became vaguely aware that I was about to be hit on the head by some object. A self-appointed G.I. was seated on the bank handing out bottles of wine to each vehicle. Although the area had only been secure for a day, someone had moved a truckload of wine in cases to this spot for distribution.
Perhaps my biggest coup in the acquisition of drinking material occurred the day before the official end of the war in Europe. My battalion was headquartered in the small village of Reichenau, about twenty miles north and east of Linz, Austria. We really were not very busy and it seemed desirable to be prepared to celebrate the end of hostilities. This small village did not have the supplies needed. So, as third ranking officer of the battalion, I appointed myself to rectify this shortage.
With permission I went to Linz to see what could be done. I took a jeep and driver and a 6x6 truck and a party of six men-one who spoke German. Upon arrival in Linz, I soon found a small wholesale beer warehouse. There was only one 45 gallon (pony) in stock. The owner was not there, but a French displaced worker was very happy to help us out. When we explained in mixed French, English and German, he offered to show us where the brewery was located. It was a large modem plant, but the pumping equipment was not working because of recent bombing.
We scouted around and quickly found nice clean barrels waiting to be filled and loaded eleven on the truck. Next we located the beer being aged in very large casks down two flight of stairs in the cellar. Deciding which one to tap was no problem since the workers were drawing off beer into quart bottles by driving a thin metal spile into the head of the correct cask. This permitted drawing out the beer without a head, but was very slow. So we solved the problem by finding several clean sprinkling cans which were probably being used by the gardeners. One man drew off the beer into a sprinkling can and let the head die down before refilling it. The other men set up a bucket brigade carrying the beer to the barrels on the truck. Again it was necessary to let the head die down before refilling some more so the barrels would be properly full. But after several hours of diligent work, we had twelve 45 gallon ponies of beer. Two for each battery and two for the officers. These were promptly tapped as soon as we returned to the battalion area.
Perhaps I should note that I never saw anyone who could not do his assigned job because he had consumed to much alcohol. It was treated as a beverage and no one ever had a lot of surplus time to sit around and drink. We were just too busy with the routine of movement, adjusting artillery fire, maintenance, eating, sleeping etc. After all our headquarters averaged nearly ten miles per day from the time we were committed to action near Bastogne until when we reached the dividing line with the Russians in Austria 129 days later.
MY WARTIME ENCOUNTER WITH THE RUSSIANS
Most American soldiers who ended World War II on the front opposite the Russians have a tale to tell. Mine shows clearly the relationship and differences between these two Allies. Our Combat Team A of the 11th Armored Division was deployed in semi-tactical positions opposite the Russians about three days before the official end of hostilities in Europe. Our area was north of Linz, Austria, which was on the Danube River and included that part of Austria which went to the border of Czechoslovakia. Our artillery battalion, the 490th Armored Field Artillery Battalion, was headquartered in Richenau with the batteries scattered around nearby. The tanks and armored infantry were also positioned nearby, but not right on the dividing line, several miles away.
Very soon we were required to form flying squads who on short notice could go out to the rescue of the local civilians. Individual Russian soldiers, usually drunk, would cross into our area to pillage and harass the natives. They would take anything of value, especially food and spirits. Most typical would be two Russians driving a team pulling a wagon to hold their loot.
After about a week of this rescue work, some wise officer in Division Headquarters decided we could barricade all of the roads and trails to keep the Russians on their side of the line. He did not fully understand the mobility of horses and wagons in cross-country travel. Thus, the word came down to our battalion that someone should travel a given sector of the front, perhaps five miles away, and map all of the roads and trails. For some reason, because of my past experience with map reading, this task was assigned to me. It looked very easy since the dividing line was a railroad line that went north-south across the front.
The next morning I took a driver and jeep plus wire cutters in case we encountered a fence that impeded our way. We drove to the southern most point and began to work our way north along the track by going through the fields. For a while this was just a pleasant task on a nice spring day. Then everything changed. As we were going down a narrow trail through a small group of trees, I suddenly realized that we were approaching a horse-drawn unit's bivouac area from the rear. Horses were tied to feed bunks fastened to the trees. Then the light went on in my brain — we had no horses, so these must be Russians.
In another second or two we saw Russian soldiers streaming in our direction from their camp area. What should we do? Neither of us spoke anything except English and besides, we really had nothing to discuss. In retrospect, perhaps I was chicken. Who knows? They might have given us a drink of vodka and lunch. Although the driver and I had not exchanged a word, everything happened so fast, reaction was immediate. Just at this critical time we arrived at a junction of five little trails. I flashed a left hand signal and the driver took the jeep on two wheels around the corner and out into the open fields away from the Russians. Use of hand signals was a common way of communication in an armored unit. At this point our mission changed. We worked our way north keeping to the main roads, but stopping to observe with field glasses. Russians were all over the place, but no one challenged us. We saw machine gun squads out on mock drill and movement plus other training groups.
Eventually we even located the main headquarters with semi-permanent quarters dug about three feet into the ground. There was a parade ground and flag pole. I estimated the unit as an infantry regiment with a reinforced artillery battalion and all were on our side of the dividing line. When I returned to our headquarters, I fired off a short intelligence report through regular channels and sat back to await the outcome. That evening after supper, the telephone rang and someone from Division Headquarters wanted to talk to me. He was very surprised at the report and asked if I could have possibly been incorrect. I bristled slightly and replied, "Send any S.O.B. that wants to see down and I'll show him on the ground." At this he thanked me and hung up.
The next morning the Division sent out an observer in an airplane who confirmed my report. Upon investigation, the Russians claimed that an American general at a party had given permission for them to make a camp in that area. They claimed it was more suitable than their side of the railroad. The end result was that the line was changed to a blacktopped road which ran between the two forces. I doubt if the general was ever located who gave the permission if it ever happened. Of course, he could have been drinking and talking when he should have been listening. Most of our unit did not like this decision. We thought they should have been told to withdraw. Many incidents of this kind convinced the Russians that we were easy to push around. President Roosevelt and his staff gave away more concessions than were necessary. The U.S. Army could have beaten the Russians to both Berlin and Vienna. Restraining lines, politically arrived at, held us back in the final days of the conflict.
Back to "Our History"