This guest post is by Salsa World Traveler. His comprehensive account of the Battle of the Bulge Tour caught my eye, especially as he chose as his guide a Belgian man who actually witnessed this key battle of the Second World War!
Salsa World Traveler writes: When I was about 10 or 11, I received as a Christmas present a Battle of the Bulge board game by Avalon Hill. The game was complicated and took two or three hours to set up and play. Among family and friends, I was the only one with enough interest to devote that much time and effort. But playing the Americans and the Germans was great for understanding the strategy and tactics and the firepower and maneuver capabilities of the combat units on both sides. A recent trip to Paris was a chance for this WWII buff to see first-hand where the engagements I had replayed many times actually occurred.
Getting there from Paris involved some effort — a train from Gare du Nord, with changes in Arras, France and Bruxelles-Midi, Belgium and finally a 45-minute bus ride from Libramont, Belgium to Bastogne. At least the trains were comfortable and had free WiFi.
The Best Guide One Could Have
Reading about history or playing a board game is one thing. Living through history is another matter altogether. For this Battle of the Bulge tour I chose the only guide I know of who actually witnessed the battle. Henri Mignon’s 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 are vivid.
This was a private tour — just Henri and me. I often elect to take private tours. They are more expensive, but can be a better value because customers can tailor the itinerary to fit their interests. There are no time-wasting mandatory stops to buy jewelry or local arts and crafts as with group tours. I hate that.
Civilians in the Battle of the Bulge
Before this tour, I knew little of the effects on the civilian population or their contributions to the Allied cause. Henri Mignon’s family provides an example of what the local population went through. At different times soldiers from the regular German Army and the SS stayed in their home. Henri slept on the floor with the enlisted men while officers took their beds. The reputation of the SS was well deserved. Even German soldiers warned Henri’s family about them.
Towards the end of the fighting Henri’s father ventured out of their home to bring water from the well. An artillery shell (probably American) landed nearby with shrapnel hitting him in the chest. Monsieur Mignon was barely able to get back to the house where he bled to death in front of the whole family. Later the fighting destroyed their home. The Mignons never rebuilt it.
During the tour we drove by the location. It is just a field now. At least 3,000 civilians died in the month-long fighting and many thousands more lost their homes and businesses. Despite the terrible price of liberation, Henri and the local population were and remain extremely grateful to the American forces who also suffered greatly.
The battle took the lives of approximately 20,000 Americans with about another 80,000 wounded, captured and missing. There are numerous stories of the assistance Belgian civilians provided to American soldiers including the remarkable story of the Angels of Bastogne, Augusta Chiwy, who had a Belgian father and Congolese mother, and Renee Lemaire, a nurse whose family lived in Bastogne.
Prelude to the Battle of the Bulge
The German Ardennes Offensive (Battle of the Bulge, Dec. 44 — Jan 45) was the last desperate major offensive to avoid total defeat of German forces on the Western Front. Following the breakout of Allied forces from the Normandy beachhead in July 1944, German forces were in full retreat. In the Fall of 1944, the British and Americans launched a series of bold and risky airborne landings deep behind German lines. The objective was to seize an intact bridge over the Rhine river at Arnhem, Holland (Operation Market Garden). Heavy divisions of the US and British armies would have used that bridgehead to sweep into Germany, likely ending the war in Europe by Christmas 1944.
When that plan failed narrowly (the source of the phrase “a bridge too far”) and to recover from the costly Battle of the Hurtgen Forest, Allied forces paused. Because the Allies viewed the German Army as all but defeated and the wooded Ardennes as unsuitable for an attack, that sector of the front was lightly defended by newly arrived units and a few veteran divisions replenishing their complements of soldiers and equipment. As an indication of just how off-guard the Americans were, Marlene Dietrich was on the front lines with a USO tour when the first artillery shells began falling.
The German Plan
With Allied armies nearing their borders on the east and west and suffering losses of men and material at irreplaceable rates, the Germans were desperate. Their generals saw a possible way out — if they could punch through the American lines in the Ardennes, seize bridges over the Meuse, and then capture the port of Antwerp, they 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.
The plan to capture Antwerp had a slim chance to succeed at least temporarily. Whether the Germans could have negotiated the kind of deal they wanted is another matter. And if the attack failed, the resources needed to defend Germany would be nearly exhausted.
The Tour of the Battle of the Bulge
The tour began when I met Henri Mignon at 09:00 in McAuliffe Square in Bastogne. The square is named for Brigadier General Anthony McAuliffe, the commander of the 101st Airborne Division during the battle. McAuliffe was the division’s second in command. As further evidence of how unprepared the Americans were, Major General Taylor, the division commander, was stateside for the holidays.
Mardasson Memorial and Bastogne War Museum
From McAuliffe Square we drove a short distance to a medieval church in town that was damaged in the battle and then to the Mardasson Monument on the edge of town.
The story of the battle is carved on the walls of the memorial and the names of all 50 states are displayed. Stairs lead to the top where there is a good view of the rolling terrain around Bastogne.
The Bastogne War Museum is located adjacent to the Mardasson Memorial. It opened in 2014. It displays various artifacts from WWII and shows film footage shot during the battle.
The barracks of the Belgian Army in Bastogne served as the 101st Airborne Division headquarters. Early in the fighting, German forces surrounded the 101st Airborne and other units in Bastogne. The Americans held on valiantly avoiding annihilation by the skin of their teeth.
Again, Henri was the perfect guide. He was posted here for several years during his career with the Belgian Army. When we arrived, the Bastogne Barracks, an active Belgian Army base, was closed to visitors. But Henri knew the guards. We were allowed to roam the buildings and grounds freely. The structure that housed the 101st Airborne headquarters looks as it did in the battle.
It was in this building that General McAuliffe received the German demand for surrender and issued his famous reply, “Nuts.” I learned that credit belongs to McAuliffe’s Division Operations Officer, Lt. Col. Harry Kinnard. When the general wondered how to respond, Kinnard suggested that McAuliffe repeat what he first said when the German letter was delivered. McAuliffe had the good sense to accept the advice.
The former HQ is now a museum containing photos, dioramas, exhibits, and displays of military equipment related to the battle and HQ operations.
In the battle, units and unorganized groups of African American soldiers fought up and down the line separately and as part of all-white units. Officially, President Harry Truman integrated the US armed services in 1948. Unofficially, the Wehrmacht beat him to it. Its surprise breakthrough necessitated an “all hands on deck” response. In Bastogne, the all Black 333rd and 969th artillery battalions wound up attached to and supporting the 101st Airborne. The 761st tank battalion was another Black unit that fought at Bastogne. Photos of the two Belgian nurses, the Angels of Bastogne, are displayed in the museum.
The Angels of Bastogne
African-Belgian Augusta Chiwy and another civilian nurse, Renee Lemaire happened to be in Bastogne visiting their families on December 16, 1944. Renee’s father ran a hardware store on the square. The store is now a restaurant, Pizzeria Giorgi, which is attached to Hotel Giorgi where I stayed. Renee and Augusta volunteered in an aid station for the 10th Armored Division. There is a plaque on the wall of a Chinese restaurant just off the square marking the location of the aid station.
On the night of Christmas Eve 1944, a German bomb scored a direct hit on the aid station killing Renee and more than 30 wounded. Augusta was in an adjoining building and survived although she was blown through a wall. She continued to treat wounded soldiers for the remainder of the siege and at one point even donned a uniform to assist wounded under fire. (A photo of the demolished aid station is found second from the left on the top line of photos on the plaque for the Nurses of Bastogne memorial, above.)
Renee’s story received a fair amount of notoriety. Chiwy was largely overlooked by history. In 2011, a researcher located Augusta in a nursing home in Belgium brought her story to light. King Albert II of Belgium bestowed on her the title Knight of the Order of the Crown. That is the same honor Renee Lemaire had received years before. Augusta Chiwy passed in 2015 at age 94.
Augusta and Renee are buried near each other in the Bastogne cemetery. They are depicted in the Band of Brothers TV series although it incorrectly shows the aid station being located in Bastogne’s medieval church and has them tending to 101st Airborne casualties.
Some facilities of the Belgian Barracks base are used to restore WWII military vehicles of all descriptions. A large storage building houses dozens and dozens of these vehicles.
We spent only an hour at the barracks. Some could easily spend hours in the vehicle storage building alone.
Bois Jacques — The Band of Brothers
Bois Jacques is located a few kilometers north of Bastogne near the village of Foy.
When Bastogne was surrounded, Easy Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, held this area of the perimeter. Easy Company is famous as the unit from the Band of Brothers television miniseries. Remnants of foxholes used by Easy Company can still be found in Bois Jacques.
Prisoner of War Massacres
During the battle German forces executed several hundred American POWs and Belgian civilians.
Malmedy (Baugnez) Massacre
One of the more famous incidents was the massacre of American POWs known as the Malmedy Massacre. The massacre did not occur in Malmedy, Belgium but in the nearby crossroads settlement of Baugnez. On December 17, 1944, a lead element of Joachim Piper’s 1st Waffen SS Regiment surprised and captured more than 100 Americans in a field artillery observation battalion at the Baugnez crossroads. It is unclear what prompted the SS to begin firing on the prisoners. When the shooting started, though, prisoners began running. Around 20 or so managed to escape. Eighty-five did not.
The Germans did not discriminate. African-American POWs got equal treatment, if not worse. Also on December 17, 11 Black soldiers from the 333rd Field Artillery Battalion (the same unit that provided fire support in Bastogne) were captured near the hamlet of Wereth, Belgium. Waffen SS soldiers from conquered territories who volunteered to fight for Germany and were particularly nasty Nazis, tortured and murdered them.
One of the more startling revelations of the Battle of the Bulge tour was the fact that Allied bombers intentionally turned the town of Houffalize, Belgium to rubble to make it hard for the Germans to retreat with tanks and heavy equipment. Many civilians died. Still, support for the Allies among the local population never wavered.
In 1944, Henri lived just outside this town. During the battle, a German Panther tank became partially submerged in the river and was abandoned. Later, Henri and his friends enjoyed playing in “their” tank.
Driving around the peaceful and beautiful Belgium countryside it was hard to imagine everything that happened here decades ago. However, as many of the monuments and memorials declared, the world must always remember those events and the service and sacrifice of the soldiers and civilians involved so that it never happens again.
Thank you Salsa World Traveler for your excellent account. On his website he has numerous accounts of trips and hotel reviews. I’m sure he’d appreciate you dropping in.
I know it’s outragous, but I’ve never visited… So thank you for the post!
Well there are so many such places to visit, one can’t visit them all! Thanks for your comment.
And somehow domestic tourism isn’t that attractive as going abroad…
My fathers unit was over run during this battle. 106th Division. They all hunkered down and played dead. Some wanted to surrender but my Dad said no these guys are moving to fast and will probably not want to take prisoners. My Dad also fought in the South Pacific and the Japanese never took prisoners. Anyway his small group of 20 moved at night and hid during the day and made it back to the US lines with 200 troops. They were all very lucky.
Thanks for sharing this Stephen, I think your Father’s reaction was totally the right one. You must be very proud of him for fighting and surviving both in Europe and the South Pacific.
How wonderful to have Henri as your guide!
It takes a Henry to recognize the importance of a Henri.
Wow, this was interesting! My knowledge of the battle was limited to the ’65 movie (which I thought was pretty good) and some episodes of “Band of Brothers.” I knew the AAF would bomb railroads, etc. to create choke points, but hadn’t realized they’d done this to a Belgian village. I always think of von Braun as a perfect example of Realpolitik, pragmatism, Machiavellian morality, etc. whatever you want to call it, granting him U.S. citizenship, honors and medals. Very good post, Denzil!
Watching Band of Brothers with my two sons certainly helped my knowledge of this battle. Actually it’s about time I re-watched it. What I find surprising is the Belgians’ apparent acceptance that this is what the Allies had to do to remove the Germans. Especially as I read elsewhere that after the bombing, 189 bodies of civilians were found in the debris.
What a comprehensive tour and how fortunate to have Henri as a guide.
There are surely fewer and fewer people around with such memories of WW2.
For sure. A German friend of ours was a little boy during the war and his memories are fascinating.
This was so interesting and moving to read. Not so much the battle details, but the human content makes it for me. The role of the nurses (and how one was overlooked), the role of the black battalions, the shocking casualties in the village that was flattened. Bravo Henri, bravo Salsa World Traveler and thanks Denzil for republishing it.
Thanks Anabel for your kind and positive comment. Yes it is a harrowing story of the people of Houfalize. After the war was over, there was the constant threat of unexploded ordnance in the surrounding fields too.
Excellent article. I learned so much from it. I plan to reblog this on equipsblog. Thank you so much for sharing.
Great, thanks for reblogging it Pat.
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The details in this article far out inform anything I’ve ever learned about WWII in Europe. All the photos make it easier to understand the battles and outcomes. Thank you, Denzil, for hosting your friend.
Yes Sharon I think it was such a privilege to have got this perspective from a survivor of this particular battle, it really brings it to a more personal level than just from the view of historians and the military commanders.
Great post! For me, this has always been one of the most interesting battles of WWII. Also, one of my favorite WWII movies. Right up there with Patton! Of course, those are just movies!
Movies and TV series are so helpful to understand these events aren’t they! Having said that, I’ve never seen Patton. ðŸ˜•
Great movie. George C Scott played General Patton. More of a biographical piece than a war movie. Came out in the early 70s I think.
Great article Denzil. Fantastic photos. The pictures of the forests with remains of foxholes are exactly as I envision them from the “Band of Brothers” series. I too need to rewatch. Thanks for the great column, Reid
Thanks Reid. I was quite disappointed to read that the Ardennes scenes of B of B were not shot in Belgium but in England! Still a great series though
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Denzil, a superb article by your friend … highly informative and comprehensive with the added bonus of memories of Henri. What horrors he witnessed and heartbreaking to see his father die in front of him.
Iâ€™ve learnt a lot reading this and feel humbled by the sacrifice of so many.
Great article. I went on a private tour with Henri in the winter of 2018. It was cold with snow on the ground, just wanted to get done feeling of how it must have felt in 1944.
Henri was superb, his knowledge and personal recollections were so interesting, I could have listened to him for hours.
I spent the week with him, I stayed in Bastogne and was collected from my hotel each morning. If you are planning to visit this area for a battlefield tour then book with Henri.
That’s a great review! Thanks. Glad you enjoyed your time with Henri and thanks for commenting here.
This was interesting to read. My father and I made our own Battle of the Bulge tour 11 years ago in honor of his father who fought with the US 2nd Armored Division. We visited Bastogne, Celles, Rochefort, and La Roche en Ardennes. Driving between all these places, you understand the scale of the battle. Thank you for posting.
Thanks for your comment Christopher. That must have been a fascinating tour, and a lovely way to remember your grandfather’s service in the 2nd Armored Div.