The Hole in the Doughnut

ON 19 DECEMBER 1944, Generalleutnant Fritz Bayerlein still thought he had time on his side. Time enough for dalliance. He appears to have quit the company of his charming companion at around 2.00 p.m. on the 19th, when he suddenly became worried about the Americans to his rear, and elected to double-back and destroy the US force at Longvilly. Then he would return to take Bastogne. Moving swiftly, Bayerlein’s force came upon a great line of stalled American vehicles, the remnants of Task Forces Rose and Harper (from the 9th Armored Division), with other stragglers from the 28th Division, packed bumper to bumper along the N12, retreating towards him. None of the Americans expected a German column to hit them from the west. At the first shots the GIs left their vehicles, fleeing across the terrain and making for the safety of Bastogne.

All rushed off except Team Cherry, now led by First Lieutenant Edward P. Hyduke, who were stationed one mile west of Longvilly by the roadside Grotto of St Michael. Hyduke’s orders were to stand and fight. By now, Lieutenant-Colonel Cherry was separated from his command, having driven to liaise with Colonel Roberts in Bastogne, and found the N12 back to Longvilly blocked by Panzer Lehr. Undeterred, Cherry rounded up a miscellany of forces and created another roadblock at Neffe, commanding it from a nearby stone-built château. Lieutenant Hyduke, arrayed around the Grotto, would have to manage on his own. At the same time – and unplanned by Bayerlein – the 26th Volksgrenadiers also hit Longvilly from the south-east.

Private Joseph C. Syiek moving west from Longvilly with CCR, was caught in the battle around the Grotto, remembering, ‘Our outfit pulled into the valley on Monday night [18 December]. The ground was soft and we were not able to pull the vehicles off the road for fear they would sink in … Early Tuesday morning we were surrounded and the Germans began to close in on us. As the day rolled on the enemy showered us with mortar, artillery and machine-gun fire. Men were going mad. There was no organisation, there was no way to go, we were all scared. Our tanks and trucks were the main targets; men ran to the slopes that formed the walls of Death Valley.’ Syiek’s story was typical of many GIs driving through the murky Ardennes, following the vehicle ahead, with little idea of where they or their opponents were.

Then, as now, once men are broken down into small groups morale plummets. Situations, such as the one Syiek found himself in, generally induce battlefield stress, an expression of the internal conflict in a soldier’s mind. On one hand there is the desire to fight bravely and support one’s comrades, so as not to let them down; on the other hand, there is a deep primeval survival instinct to turn and run. Stress narrows the span of attention, reduces the capacity for problem-solving and induces restlessness, irritability and jumpiness. Military historian S.L.A. Marshall observed that such strain was so common that ‘less than twenty-five percent of US infantry in World War II employed hand weapons effectively’.1 This is not post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but a contributor to it.

Isolation can become, literally and metaphorically, a killer for soldiers in battle, but the effects can be reduced significantly by human interaction. Small groups, even pairs of soldiers, can act as an effective buffer against such combat stress, hence the importance of man-management and junior leadership at every level. Where direction is lacking, or troops became separated, lonely terrain such as that of the wintry Ardennes in 1944 greatly exacerbates these issues for all combatants.2

Stress could also express itself in soldiers looking for an easy exit from the battlefield in various ways. In the late afternoon of 19 December, during Team Cherry’s battles with Panzer Lehr, twenty US half-tracks arrived, carrying ‘about 200 stragglers from various units that had fallen back from other actions to the east. They were mostly tankers, and although they all dismounted from the half-tracks, only about forty of them, along with three captains and two lieutenants from CCR, moved toward the fighting. The others fled across fields.’3 Elsewhere, PFC John Davis, a scout with the 106th Division, remembered resting when he heard a gunshot and found ‘one of my friends had shot himself in the foot. My heart just sank to the ground. It seemed so unnecessary … This guy was one of the rocks of the company, solid and dependable, but he’d had enough … At one time or another, nearly everyone entertained the thought of getting out that way.’4

Lieutenant Otts of the 75th Division also recalled ‘it was not unusual for someone to “accidentally” shoot himself in the hand or foot before almost every big push. These “accidents” became so frequent that an order came out requiring a court martial investigation of every such “accident”.’ Otts echoed John Davis’s view that ‘I’ll bet there wasn’t a man in the outfit who didn’t thinking about shooting himself at some time or other’.5 Meanwhile, ‘Doc’ M. Bedford Davis (no relation), a battalion surgeon attached to Colonel Rudder’s 109th Regiment, arranged a three-day truce with his German opposite number over 17–19 December, transporting seriously wounded troops from a poorly equipped German aid station to better resourced US medical facilities. ‘On the third day,’ Davis related, ‘the ambulance came in with the same German medical officer. This time he stated he was weary of fighting and wanted to be sent in as a POW. This I did reluctantly, a little envious at how easily he had extricated himself from the conflict.’6 These three examples indicated different attempts to escape the 1944 battlefield – by flight, a self-inflicted wound, or surrender.

In his seminal Anatomy of Courage, Charles McMoran Wilson, later Winston Churchill’s personal physician, observed that every person has a personal reserve of courage, which is used up in combat or stressful situations. However, each ‘bank of courage’ is different and the amount withdrawn also varies with the individual and circumstance. Thus it is impossible to measure how much courage has been used, or is left, in each individual – making it difficult to predict when and how ground troops, aircrew or naval personnel, for example, will collapse under the strain of continuous combat. Wilson argued that resilience can be helped by good leadership or the proximity of fellows undergoing the same stress. George W. Neill, with the 99th Checkerboard Division, remembered two men in the back seat of a jeep. ‘They looked beaten. They showed no sign of recognition that I existed. They looked straight ahead with glazed, blank eyes. Their faces were covered with dirt and their beard four or five days old. Although physically uninjured, they resembled the living dead. I felt terribly sorry for them – a very different kind of war victim.’7

Some commanders realised that soldiers exhibiting excessive signs of breakdown also needed to be removed from their colleagues so as to prevent stress symptoms and panic from spreading. General Matthew Ridgway came across a sergeant in the Ardennes who had become hysterical, and thrown himself in a roadside ditch, crying and raving. ‘I walked over and tried to talk to him, to help him get a hold of himself. But it had no effect. He was just crouched there in the ditch, cringing in utter terror. So I called my Jeep driver, Sergeant Farmer, and told him to take his carbine and march this man back to the nearest MP and if he started to escape, to shoot him without hesitation. He was an object of abject cowardice and the sight of him would have a terrible effect on any American soldier who might see him.’8

Ridgway’s solution might seem brutal today, but fellow paratrooper Robert M. Bowen of the 101st Airborne Division recalled the drip-feed conditions of the Bulge that slowly broke men down, ‘a biting wind blew over the chilling snow, piercing our inadequate clothing like a knife. We were hungry, cold, and depressed. Hungry because we had been living off of one or two K-rations a day for nearly a week. Cold because many of us did not have overcoats, overshoes, gloves or mufflers. And depressed because after fighting debilitating campaigns in Normandy and Holland with their high casualty rates, this one in Belgium threatened to be the last straw to push us over the edge.’9

Paratrooper Don Burgett noted how they had all been obliged to stack their heavy winter clothing by the roadside in order to be able to move fast in their attack on Noville. ‘We stripped down to jumpsuits, jump boots, helmets and gloves.’ His new company commander stated, ‘there wouldn’t be time to get cold, and we would come back and pick up our belongings the next day, after we’d whipped the Germans back to where they’d come from’.10 They didn’t believe him, and they were never able to return, adding to their misery. However, in the case of the 101st, strong esprit de corps and experience helped the paratroopers through their winter nightmare.

The excessive cold got to GIs of every arm of service, even tank troops. The US 6th Armored Division’s history recorded, ‘Snow, ice, and sub-freezing weather provided the setting for one of the most severe campaigns ever fought … Tank turrets froze, and had to be chipped free to regain traversing action. Iced breach blocks had to be manually operated. M-1 rifles refused to function until bolts were beaten back and forth with grenades. When escape hatches and tank doors stuck fast, they got “blow-torch” treatment. Ice formed in gas tanks and clogged lines. Feet froze. Men became so cold they “burned”.’11

Most in the Ardennes were tested in this way, not just by the proximity of artillery but the relentless hunger, cold, general fatigue and sleep deprivation; newer units and those without combat experience suffered the most.12 When George W. Neill, of the 99th, came under his first, prolonged artillery bombardment on 16 December, he recalled ‘for the first time I could clearly hear shell fragments falling like a hailstorm, slicing into the hard, frozen ground outside my foxhole. They were everywhere. Anyone outside of a log-covered, deep hole would be dead in seconds, bleeding from numerous body wounds. At this point, I felt too tired and numb to be afraid.’13

Back at the Grotto of St Michael, Syiek wrote, ‘There was one of three things to do. Fight a hopeless battle to the last man, surrender, or try an escape through the enemy in our rear. I chose the latter, and since my squad was disorganized and my company scattered, I asked for no one’s permission. Other men went off to escape, but I took a different direction. I took a narrow path on the slope that led into a pine grove. Ten or fifteen yards in I noticed a stone stairway covered with pine needles, climbing and winding up a hill steeper and higher than Norfolk Street [back home in Worcester, Massachusetts]. At the first bend was the first Station of the Cross. It was carved from white rock mounted on a marble block. I blessed myself and went on up, and at each bend was another Station.’ Syiek managed to overcome his battlefield stress, act logically and evade capture. He believed that his deep religious faith had shielded him from shells and deadly shrapnel as he moved through the religious statues on the hillside.14

The Americans fought tenaciously but by 3.30 p.m. the battle was over. Scores of dead GIs lay sprawled among the stone statues on the hillside around the Grotto, and the long column of 9th tanks, armoured cars, guns and jeeps burned – Panzer Lehr counted 200 US vehicles destroyed or captured. (In 1977, between the rocks on the hillside around the Grotto, I picked up a rusty bucket, only to realise it was a shell-damaged German steel helmet, left behind by a member of Panzer Lehr thirty-three years earlier who no longer needed it.) Edward Hyduke, though wounded, would survive to enjoy his well-earned Silver Star in retirement, despite many Bulge authors reporting his demise at the Grotto.15 Scores of Americans were taken prisoner, but some of CCR and Team Cherry managed to withdraw cross-country and link up with the 101st Airborne troops, who were now beginning to establish a continuous perimeter around Bastogne.

Lieutenant-Colonel Cherry himself, separated from his Team at the Grotto, nevertheless spent the 19th delaying Panzer Lehr and the 26th Volksgrenadiers from advancing beyond Neffe. By late afternoon the Germans had surrounded and set fire to his château, but he managed to slip away under cover of darkness, having tied down his attackers all day. As he did so, the 1st Battalion of Lieutenant-Colonel Julian Ewell’s 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment had appeared in the vicinity, ensuring the Germans would get no closer to Bastogne. Cherry assessed with pride that, although his skirmishes had cost his force 175 officers and men (a quarter of his strength), seventeen tanks and the same number of half-tracks, they had inflicted at least the same losses on his enemy and more importantly had delayed the drive of an entire division on Bastogne by a day. The citation for Colonel Cherry’s Silver Star read in part that for much of 19 December he had ‘personally engaged the enemy with submachine-gun and pistol fire, dispersing an estimated twenty-five man group, in accordance with the highest standards of the military service’.

Fritz Bayerlein had paid a high price for his dalliance and subsequent diversion back to Team Cherry at Longvilly. Against the odds, Bastogne – which had been within Bayerlein’s undoubted grasp twelve hours earlier – had since been secured by the paratroopers of the 101st Airborne, who had won the race to the town. By 09.00 a.m. on the 19th, all four of its regiments had deployed around it.

Ewell’s 501st PIR were sited east, defending a sector from two to three o’clock, including Bizory and Neffe. Colonel Steve A. Chappius’s 502nd PIR found themselves between Champs at eleven o’clock and Recogne at one o’clock in the north. With them was Ed Peniche, who dug in his anti-tank gun and made foxholes lined with straw in the grounds of an abandoned farmhouse at Longchamps. He first saw action on the 20th, attacking a pair of half-tracks belonging to a 2nd Panzer reconnaissance unit, and remembered the weather turning colder with some snow falling; on the 21st he woke up under a heavy blanket of snow with more falling until mid-afternoon, as it grew even colder. He could hear the sounds of a fire fight to his right throughout 19–20 December, which was where Colonel Sink’s 506th PIR were battling against 2nd Panzer at Noville.16 The Screaming Eagles’ final unit, Colonel Joseph H. Harper’s 327th Glider Infantry Regiment, occupied two defensive sites at five and eight o’clock, to the south of Bastogne.

At the same time, the US 705th Tank Destroyer Battalion had arrived to join the 609th Tank Destroyers already in Bastogne; the former, released from the US Ninth Army up north, was equipped with M-18 Hellcats armed with 76mm guns – almost a match for a Tiger II with its 88mm cannon. Also present, or in the process of arriving, were the 755th and 969th Field Artillery Battalions, plus the highly mobile 420th Armoured Field Artillery with their self-propelled M-7 Priests, with 105mm guns mounted on a Sherman chassis. The latter proved invaluable, being able to reach all around the perimeter with their 12,000-yard range. They far outclassed the light 105mm guns of the airborne artillery, which had only a 4,500-yard range. Like father, like son: the 420th was very ably led by Major Willis D. Crittenberger, Jr, whose father was commanding US IV Corps in Italy at the time. All these outfits rapidly positioned themselves around the town, enabling Middleton and McAuliffe to feel a little more comfortable.

The other two teams establishing roadblocks had fought equally gallant delaying actions. Team O’Hara, with thirty tanks and 500 men, were positioned on the N34 near Wardin. Colonel O’Hara could hear the noise of battle and followed on his radio frequencies the skirmishes between the Germans and Teams Cherry and Desobry, but where, he wondered, were the Germans in his sector? He sent Captain Edward A. Carrigo and First Lieutenant John D. Devereaux on a jeep patrol to scout eastwards and find them. Locals flocked around their vehicle when they pulled up at the church of Saint Aubin in Wardin, and Devereaux stood up to practise his French. ‘Have no fear, the US Army is here to stay. We will protect you,’ he proclaimed, concluding with a theatrical bow which brought applause.

Continuing on their way, as the thick mist suddenly dissolved the pair came under fire when they spotted a column of half-tracks emblazoned with crosses rattling quickly towards them. ‘My God, those are Krauts!’ uttered Devereaux, slamming the jeep into reverse, spinning round and racing back to warn O’Hara, accelerator flat to the floor. Unfortunately they had to retrace their route through the crowd, still outside Wardin’s little steepled church, and Devereaux, profoundly embarrassed, screamed, ‘Get out of the way you morons, the Krauts are coming!’17 Devereaux would win a Silver Star that day for his leadership in the defence of Wardin, but not for his thespian activities. At the end of the 19th, as Panzer Lehr outflanked Wardin, moving cross-country, O’Hara was forced to withdraw a short distance west to Marvie. For the next month this area would be contested, with the Americans advancing several times before being beaten back. Not until 16 January was the village securely back in US hands, by which time it was 80 per cent destroyed.

Meanwhile, Major Desobry’s team, with Don Addor, in Noville, had skirmished blindly with their opponents from 05.30 a.m. on the 19th, but it was only at 10.00 a.m. – when the dense cloud of fog lifted dramatically like a theatre curtain to reveal the whole area crawling with German tanks heading west to the Meuse – that their battle really commenced. By then, Addor had already met his opponents in the mist. ‘I was walking down the main road through the fog when I heard someone approaching from behind. When he was alongside of me I looked over and saw he was a German rifleman. I can’t tell you the sudden shock of seeing the enemy right there beside me! He ran one way and I the other.’18

The lifting of the fog surprised the Germans as well as the defenders, catching formations of troops and vehicles in the open. Fourteen panzers were spotted advancing along a ridge to the west of the N15, desperately looking for cover, of which ten were quickly despatched. Desobry was heartened by the arrival later that morning of the 1st Battalion of Colonel Robert L. Sink’s 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, who immediately counter-attacked the Germans, then dug in around Noville.

Artilleryman Barrett, who had noticed the paratrooper still wearing a dress uniform jumping out of a vehicle, joined his buddies in handing out any spare weapons, ammunition and blankets they had accumulated and squirrelled away in their vehicles, to the 101st boys, who in their haste to deploy were impossibly short of personal weapons. Also distributing ammo was Lieutenant George C. Rice, a 10th Armored Division officer, who had begged, stolen and borrowed all the spare .30-inch clips, .45-inch cartridges, grenades, mortar and bazooka rounds he could find in Bastogne. No one had told him to do this; he had simply realised how pitifully short the 101st were, and sat in his jeep by the roadside, handing ammo to the Screaming Eagles as they marched up to Noville with rifle and pack.19

Donald R. Burgett was with them as they dashed into Noville, hitting the Germans, throwing them off balance and pushing them back. Over the next forty-eight hours Desobry’s armoured infantry, Sherman and tank-destroyer crews with the paratroopers, amounting to less than two battalions, managed to withstand attacks from the entire weight of 2nd Panzer Division. However, within minutes of their arrival a shell hit the command post in the village school opposite the church, killing the battalion’s CO, Lieutenant-Colonel James L. LaPrade, who had fought through Normandy and Holland, and badly wounding Desobry, who was then swiftly evacuated to Bastogne. Addor discovered a German sniper active in Noville, who had secreted himself in the attic of one of the houses in the first few hours. His position was eventually discovered because he was using tracer rounds. Addor asked how they got him down. ‘They didn’t. They just riddled the whole length of the ceiling until blood started dripping through the bullet holes and they left his body up there.’20

Noville, a tiny cluster of stone houses and barns astride the N15, has changed little since the battle. German tanks crept repeatedly down the main road, duelling with Shermans, tank-destroyers and bazooka teams. Very soon the area became a wasteland of shattered houses, smoking vehicles, dust and rubble, with Germans and GIs thoroughly intermingled, occupying alternate houses. Shots rang out in every direction, tank guns fired through buildings, with both sides sustaining very high casualties. Dead animals and troopers littered the fields and lanes. Eventually the weight of 2nd Panzer against them proved too much for the remains of Team Desobry, and by late afternoon on 20 December the survivors had withdrawn south from Noville to Bois Jacques, woods which lay behind Foy.

Despite a thick fog which descended again, the departing vehicles were ambushed and the GIs became separated. Among them was Burgett, who managed to battle his way back to Foy, and Don Addor, who was struggling across a field when he ‘heard a blast and I was blown into the air. I landed flat on my back. My helmet flew in one direction and my rifle went in another.’21 He felt a large piece of mortar shrapnel in his back and within minutes he had also taken two bullets in his right leg. Fortunate to be rescued by his buddies, Addor’s war was over and he began a long journey via Paris and Oxford to the Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, DC, which saw him lose his leg to gangrene.

Of the fifteen tanks that had first driven to Noville, four returned; two hundred of Desobry’s men, including the major himself, had become casualties, as had 212 of the Colonel Sink’s 506th (sometimes known as the ‘Five-O-Sink’ because of the longevity of his command). Lauchert’s 2nd Panzer Division had lost twenty tanks destroyed at Noville, and twenty-five others needed repair. A whole Panzergrenadier battalion had been wiped out and 142 men taken prisoner. Worse still, Lauchert felt, was the lost time and precious spent fuel.22

Attached to Team Desobry was Dr John ‘Jack’ Prior, assigned to the 20th Armored Infantry Battalion to replace their medic, evacuated with pneumonia just before the battle began. He opened his aid station in Noville’s bar, the Café Louis, from 06.00 a.m. on the 19th and had no shortage of business, though at one stage the half-track into which he had just loaded four patients received a direct hit as soon as it moved off. He managed to rescue his casualties under the gaze of the offending German tank commander. Eventually Prior evacuated all his patients into Bastogne by strapping them to salvaged doors, and tying these to the decks of Sherman tanks.

In the wake of the Volksgrenadiers, the security apparatus of the Third Reich quickly descended on each and every village. On 20 December, even while Team Desobry were contesting the area, a Gestapo unit arrived in Bourcy, a mile east of Noville. They spoke French fluently and questioned the villages, looking for Allied sympathisers and American stragglers. Two accompanied Marcel Roland to his cellar to plunder the best wine, but in their search uncovered a hidden American flag, used by the Rolands to welcome their liberators in September, and fabricated from lengths of dyed cloth. Roland was beaten badly by his captors, his screaming audible to all nearby, but it was only on 21 December that his body was discovered, dumped in the mud, his skull crushed by clubs. The Maquet family, who ran the village bar, had likewise been executed, but no one in Bourcy could think why. The Gestapo then moved into Noville, while the smoke of battle still hung over the town; there they executed eight men behind ‘Doc’ Prior’s dressing station, the Café Louis, including the schoolmaster and the village priest.23

Following his hasty departure from Noville, ‘Doc’ Prior then set up a 10th Armored Division aid station on the rue Neufchâteau, where two Belgian nurses, Renée Lemaire and Augusta Chiwy, who was from the Belgian Congo, helped him care for the hundreds of badly wounded. On at least one occasion, Chiwy accompanied ‘Doc’ Prior to collect casualties from Mardasson Hill, north-east of Bastogne, wearing GI uniform because her own clothes had become saturated with blood. Prior said the bullets missed her because she was so small. Chiwy retorted, ‘those Germans must be terrible marksmen – a black face in all that white snow was a pretty easy target’.

On 23 December a Luftwaffe bomb fell on the aid station, killing thirty wounded GIs and Lemaire. Chiwy was blown through a wall, but survived unscathed. The remainder were quickly moved into the Heintz Barracks and, by the time a second surgeon arrived by Piper Cub on 26 December to assist Prior and Chiwy, there were more than 600 serious cases. Today, a wall plaque commemorates Lemaire’s death, but somehow Chiwy’s bravery was overlooked. Happily this was remedied in June 2011, when King Albert II made her a Knight of the Order of the Belgian Crown for her work in 1944.24

As Bayerlein’s men were battling with Team Cherry, Oberst von Lauchert realised his 2nd Panzer Division was running short of fuel. He knew that having to manoeuvre cross-country around Bastogne, instead of driving through it on surfaced roads, guzzled gasoline. So, too, did the battle for Noville. None of the US gasoline depots he had expected to capture had been discovered. Lüttwitz, XLVII Panzer Corps commander, requested permission on his behalf to fight his way into Bastogne, where he assumed there would be a large fuel dump. ‘Forget Bastogne and head for the Meuse’ came the terse reply from Manteuffel.

However, Bayerlein’s Panzer Lehr was beginning to experience the same problem. After being held up by Team Cherry at Longvilly and Neffe, the division was ordered to bypass Bastogne to the south. Behind them, Oberst Kokott’s 26th Volksgrenadiers had already been ordered to cease following the panzers and encircle and occupy Bastogne when the opportunity arose. Hitler’s original plan was becoming unrecognisable. Gradually the villages around the perimeter were probed for weak spots by the grenadiers; Marvie, Bizory and Neffe all came under attack. Bastogne had been surrounded.

The view of the garrison was typified by the observation which circulated swiftly: ‘They’ve got us surrounded – the poor bastards!’ Later that night, 20 December, when US XVIII Airborne Corps called by radio to ask the situation, the 101st Division G-3, Lieutenant-Colonel Harry W.O. Kinnard, Jr, was wary of saying too much in case the Germans were monitoring the exchange. He replied simply, ‘Visualise the hole in the doughnut. That’s us!’25

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at admin@erenow.org. Thank you!