German attack in the Ardennes: Operation by 30 Corps

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  1. dbf

    dbf Moderatrix MOD

    Appendix 'A' to 30 CORPS Intelligence Summary No. 575.

    IN THE ARDENNES COUNTRY A MILITARY SURVEY OF THE BATTLE-GROUP.

    RUNDSTEDT's offensive happens to be almost exactly comprised within the limits of the ARDENNES. I have seen it recently described as "the historic route for the invasion of FRANCE," but though a line joining BERLIN and PARIS exactly bisects it I can find no warrant for this assertion. On the contrary, until the present century wars seem to have passed it by - in spite of the fact that it is liberally studded with castles. No great battle was fought within its confines until 1914; this fact, combine with its name, "The Forest of the ARDENNES," has probably given rise to the popular misconception as to its nature and practicability for war-like operations.

    Recent facts of history, however, stand to refute this belief. Thrice within the last 30 years huge armies have marched and manoeuvred through it, and on two of these occasions pitched battles have been fought. How is it that a terrain popularly supposed to consist of nothing but mountains and forest can form a battle-ground of such vast proportions?

    The ARDENNES may be described as that portion of BELGIUM and LUXEMBOURG that lies to the South-East of the MEUSE. It is inhabited by French-speaking WALLOONS. It is a romantic land of castles, verdure, and swift-flowing streams. So far from its being one vast forest, I should compute its wooded portion at rather less than 33 per cent; and though much of the area is over 1,000 feet in height it does not convey an impression of moutons, for the height of the hills above the valleys seldom exceeds 500 feet. The woods are very similar to English woods. They vary to the same extent in density. Tanks must keep for the most part to rides and roads.

    As for the general lie of the land, the hill features take a very definite and uniform trend in a direction North-East to South-West, forming a series of ridges rising 100 feet to 300 feet about the valleys, narrow on top, and interrupted in a few places by small cress streams. The roads follow for the most part the features of the ground, and are remarkable for their precision and parallelism. There is a general impression that the ARDENNES is almost roadless. This is far from being the truth. Indeed, I once traced no fewer than 13 separate first-class roads running through the ARDENNES from GERMANY to FRANCE, excluding those embraced by or in view of the LIEGE and NAMUR forts. Thus it was possible for at least 13 German columns to march abreast, provided none of these roads impinged on one another, or, if they did, that the road where they touched was wide enough for the double traffic. I noticed that at one point (to the North of BOUILLON) two of these roads did impinge. I therefore visited the spot and measured the width at the crossroads in question. They are situated in the midst of the forest, where traffic is almost nil, yet the width of the metalled road was almost 60 yards. I drew certain conclusions …

    The highest point in the ARDENNES is between MALMEDY and MONTGOIE (MONSCHAU). The centre of the most elevated part is BASTOGNE, over 1,500 feet high. Even in the most lofty and wooded areas there are numerous side roads and tracks which tanks could use - at least in the early stages of the battle. So let us abandon the idea that coherent military operations cannot take place in the ARDENNES.

    As a matter of fact, on August 22nd, 1914, a series of pitched battles, which largely decided the French retreat, took place in their Southern portion of the ARDENNES. It may be of interest to give their names, as these names may be coming into the news once more. They area from East to West, ETHE 4411, VIRTON 4010, ROSSIGNOL 3826, NEUFCHATEAU 3440, BERTRIX 2142, and PALISEUL 1348. All these battles are still full of lessons for fighting in wooded country. It is noteworthy that ROMMEL first smelt gunpowder at ETHE. He also was struck by the number of lessons it taught, and years later he published his views on the subject. Doubtless they have since been studies and imbibed by the German Army - to our disadvantage, for they were very sensible views.

    The principal possible obstacles to the German advance (apart from woods) are the rivers. They all have swift currents, generally with firm rocky bottoms, but bridges are comparatively few, and the approaches are apt to be difficult - even precipitous. The chief river is the MEUSE, a magnificent stream that sweeps its winding remorseless way through a series of gorges, all the way from the French frontier at GIVET, past beautiful DINANT and historic NAMUR to LIEGE, a large unpleasant industrial town surrounded by 13 forts. The gorges are numerous, their height being about 300 feet, the river is about 90 yards wide and fairly swift and deep. It thus forms a formidable obstacle. Yet, just as the ALBERT Canal did not delay the Gemans 24 hours in 1940, nor the Allies in 1944, so the MEUSE did not delay them either in 1914 or 1940. We must not therefore expect too much from it. Not bricks and mortar, not cement or waterways, can keep out an enemy, but flesh and blood only.

    Second only in importance as an obstacle to the German advance is the OURTHE, which rises near BASTOGNE and flows North, to enter the MEUSE at LIEGE. Narrow, winding and rapid, it is in one of the most picturesque valleys in the ARDENNES. Its chief town is LAROCHE, a famous beauty spot. The surrounding forest is believed by some to be the original of Shakespeare's "FOREST OF ARDEN". The hills on the Eastern bank rise sheer for 500 feet, thus completely commanding the town, which lies at their foot, astride the river. Railways are few and badly laid, the chief one running from NAMUR to LUXEMBOURG. But I cannot see them affecting the operations on either side. Mention of LUXEMBOURG reminds me that confusion is sometimes caused by the use of the expression "Belgian LUXEMBOURG". This is the Province of BELGIUM abutting on to the Duchy, its capital being ARLON 6122. In other words, it forms the extreme South-East tip of BELGIUM. Generally speaking the Duchy shares the same features as Belgian LUXEMBOURG, though in the Southern part it is much better supplied with roads.

    (Extract - The Times, 1st January 1945.)
     
  2. dbf

    dbf Moderatrix MOD

    158th INFANTRY BRIGADE.

    OPERATIONS IN THE ARDENNES - January 1945.

    1. CONDITIONS.
    The operations under consideration were undertaken in the ARDENNES during the period 4th - 8th January 1945. During this period there was a snowfall of about 4 inches, followed immediately by a severe drop in temperature, a period of two fine, but very cold days, with patches of thick mist on the high ground, which was followed by intermittent snow storms ending in a 12 hour blizzard.

    Prior to this period a large proportion of the troops had been in the open, either in defensive positions or moving to new concentration areas for a period of 3 - 5 days. The cold weather and snow storms had been general.

    From 4th - 8th January the troops had been in contact with the enemy on a hight wooded ridge. The woods were extensive and thick, consisting of plantains of young firs with abundant low branches, which reduced visibility to 10 yards in most cases and in no case to more than 50 yards. Three hill tracks led upwards to these woods rising 400 feet in a distance of 2,000 yards. The highest point of the ridge was 1,200 feet above sea level.

    The tracks were steep, narrow and icy. In the woods the tracks deteriorated to paths. Lateral communications were impossible in forward Battalion areas. The ground was snow covered to a depth of 6 - 8 inches, and frozen. There was no shelter of any description.


    2. EFFECT ON OPERATIONS.

    (a) Tactical.
    Movement of men and vehicles was difficult. In the woods men either moved in file or single file along the main axis of the tracks. Deployment necessitated physical forcing of a way through the snow-laden undergrowth in the plantations and woods. This was slow, tiring and wet work, resulting in great difficulties of control from Platoon level upwards. The absence of landmarks of any description, except for tracks, made the location of sub-unit positions a matter of guesswork.

    Movement of vehicles, except for tanks, was restricted to existing tracks and roads. These were covered in layers of ice and frosty snow. Gradients could not be climbed easily, except by WEASELS and chained vehicles. Normal tracks skidded too easily. Once hard surface roads and minor roads were left, wheeled vehicles found the greatest difficulty in negotiating deeply rutted frozen tracks which invariably ended in a footpath on entering the vast wooded area. Tanks experienced difficulty, with norman tracks, of climbing frozen gradients but, in the woods, they were capable of forcing paths through the plantations. These tracks could be used by WEASELS, carriers and chained vehicles, but such vehicles could not return down these tracks easily against the "grain" of the trees.

    Thus, the difficulties of command and movement of troops and vehicles set definite limitations on the speed and control of the operations.

    (b) Physical.
    The long period of exposure under such conditions of climate and country provided a severe test for the troops of all arms. Exposure tended to produce the natural physical conditions of exhaustion, frost bite and trench foot. The discomfort and the close nature of the country induced mental depression, claustrophobia and anxiety. Leadership was tested very highly. But, by the nature of the operations under such conditions the leaders' exertions exposed them more than normally, to risks of exhaustion.


    3. PHYSICAL

    (a) Clothing.
    (i) Body.
    Physical exertion under conditions envisaged above produces sweat. Any period of waiting freezes the man. The leather jerking or pullover should not be worn during movement but slung over the haversack and put on at the first opportunity later. Battledress collects snow and is not windproof. New denim, which is partly snow and windproof should be worn over battledress. Snow suits were found to be most satisfactory.

    (ii) Feet.
    The normal Army boot is not protection against cold feet. Some form of insulation as an overboot is more desirable. Walking and condensation damp the socks which immediately freeze when the man is still. Sentries cannot be expected to remain alert and quick on snow or ice covered ground. Suggested improvements are:-
    American overshoes
    Sandbags filled with straw, leaves, etc., tied round the feet.
    Extra pair of socks on man. Ample reserves with Battalion.
    Sock drying oven in Battalion area.
    Light overboot anti-gas.

    (iii) Hands.
    Woollen gloves become wet and then frozen. An over-glove of the type gloves, anti-gas, or a pair of large driver's gloves worn over the woollen glove would improve matters.


    (b) Food.
    Until tracks are made a Battalion Commander's greatest anxiety for the first 24 hours is the provision to the men of hot food. In frozen trackless forests the distribution of hot food to platoons and sections is a major administrative operation necessitating a large number of carriers and guides. The collection of guides alone is impracticable if night has already fallen. Without hot drink or food the morale and stamina of troops in forward areas slump rapidly. The issue of a minimum of 24 hour pack and an ample supply of Hexamine tablets is considered an absolute essential. Battalion should hold centrally or at Company H.Q.s sufficient self-heating tins of food and drink in addition.


    4. TACTICAL.
    The main tactical problems arise through difficulties of movement and control.

    (a) Movement.
    (i) Route and track maintenance and rigid traffic control are essential.

    (ii) Tanks can make rough tracks but bulldozers are essential to enable other vehicles to use them.

    (iii) Other tracked vehicles require ice grips on their tracks.

    (iv) Heavy vehicles including recovery vehicles must NOT be allowed forward of Brigade H.Q. Bulldozers for clearing breakdowns or ditched vehicles is the suggested exception.


    (b) Control.
    Provided there is a main axis track and that frontages are narrow, control offers no great difficulties on the Battalion level. But Companies and Platoons working in thick undergrowth require a lavish issue of simple compasses. Sound signals by whistle, rattle bugle, etc., are suggested as valuable aids.

    Wireless sets off any track except in "clean" forests cannot be relied on during movement.

    Battalion H.Q. cannot be expected to function efficiently in the open. A 160 lb tent should be got forward on a tank or a carrier.


    5. CONCLUSIONS.
    With normal clothing, equipment and transport this Brigade underwent and stood up remarkably well to operations of a distinctly rigorous nature over a period of about 7 to 9 days. To reduce to a very great extent some of the difficulties met with, would necessitate modifications to equipment and transport. It is realised that this is not practicable. In my opinion, I consider that the minimum issue of a 24 hour pack with ample Hexamine tablets and some form of good insulation against cold and wet feet are priority requirements for infantry battalions. The provision of WEASELS, ice grips for carrier tracks and tank sledges for tools, stores and ammunition are essential if the transport, movement and medical evacuation difficulties are to be lessened to any considerable degree.


    Signed ?
    Brigadier, Commander 158th INFANTRY BRIGADE

    25th January 1945
    B.L.A.


    Distribution: H.Q. 53rd DIVISION, War Diary (2)
     
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