Hardly a day goes by that I don’t hear about the “critical shortages” of health care providers to respond to the Covid-19 epidemic. This is crucial and will inevitably lead to needless suffering and deaths. While I blindly trust that the government and health care system will figure out how to address this national emergency, I can’t help but to remember Dad’s story about “critical shortages” during the Battle of the Bulge.
DECEMBER 1944: A DIRE SITUATION UNFOLDS IN EUROPE
On December 16, 1944, the German military launched an attack in Belgium that they code-named Unternehmen Wacht am Rhein ("Operation Watch on the Rhine"). Columns of armor and infantry supported by heavy artillery and air attacks launched through the densely forested Ardennes region of eastern Belgium, northeast France, and Luxembourg. The German objective was to capture the port of Antwerp and to split the Allied lines, allowing the Germans to encircle and destroy four Allied armies. Their ultimate goal was to force the Western Allies to negotiate a peace treaty in the Axis powers' favor.
The Germans attacked a weakly defended section of the Allied line, taking advantage of heavily overcast weather conditions that grounded the Allies' overwhelmingly superior air forces. Fierce resistance on the northern shoulder of the offensive, around Elsenborn Ridge, and in the south, around Bastogne, blocked German access to key roads to the northwest and west that they counted on for success.
The “Battle of the Bulge” raged through December when the German offensive ground to a halt. Though it appeared to be a stalemate, the Germans still controlled a dangerous salient (“bulge”) in the Allied line.
An Allied counteroffensive counted on Patton's Third Army, centered around Bastogne, to attack north and General Montgomery's British forces in the north to strike south. The two forces planned to meet at Houffalize.
At the start of the offensive, the First and Third U.S. Armies were separated by about 25 miles. American progress in the south was also restricted to about a half a mile per day. On January 2, the Tiger IIs of German Heavy Tank Battalion 506 supported an attack by the 12th SS Hitlerjugend division against U.S. positions near Wardin. The majority of the German force executed a successful fighting withdrawal and escaped the battle area.
On January 7, 1945, Hitler agreed to withdraw all forces from the Ardennes ending all offensive operations. On January 14, Hitler granted Gerd von Rundstedt permission to carry out a fairly drastic retreat in the Ardennes region. Houffalize and the Bastogne front were abandoned. Considerable fighting continued for three more weeks. The last German units participating in the offensive did not return to their start line until 25 January.
DAD’S “CRITICAL SHORTAGE” RESPONSE
During this time, my Dad was a First Sergeant training infantry soldiers at Camp Howze, Texas. What he told me about this time was just based on his own recollections. This period was always a dark memory for Dad.
As he explained it, “The push was on. We needed soldiers in Europe immediately. We used to train the boys for 18 weeks, but the orders came down to shorten that time and get them to the coast.”
Dad would go on to describe how they raced to get the new recruits on the “Red Ball” to the East Coast where they would ship to Europe. A couple of months later, they received updates. Dad said, almost inaudible to me, “We received the casualty reports for those boys who we had short-changed.”
Dad felt that he hadn’t adequately prepared these recruits for combat, and because of him, many died or were injured. Before he changed the subject, he would say, almost to himself, “What else could we do? Not sending those boys would have meant Hitler would have pushed us out of Europe. There was a critical shortage — we had to adapt, even knowing some would die.”
The last time Dad and I talked about this was just a few months before he died at the age of 93. He still expressed the same sentiment: “It was a critical shortage — we had to adapt — even knowing some would die.”
TRAINING REPLACEMENTS FOR THE BATTLE OF THE BULGE
I haven't dug too deeply into Dad’s claim about shortening the training time to meet the demands of the battlefield. What I have found is that Army did seriously change the training of replacements throughout 1944 and 1945.
Beginning in 1943, the Army instituted a number of changes that de-emphasized technical and administrative specialists like cooks, clerks, and mechanics. At the same time, combat specialists, such as riflemen, tankers, troopers, and tank destroyer crewmen received more intensive training.
Specific skill training was altered, as well. For example, marksmanship training was cut from 126 hours in 1943 to 103 in February 1944. At the same time, light machine gun squad and section tactics were cut from 34 hours to 20 as was 60mm mortar section training. It started to become a bit more clear why Dad felt they were “short-changing” the trainees.
But, as I dug deeper into the training protocols, I learned that these cuts of individual skill instruction were offset by greater emphasis on teaching individual combat skills. For example, bayonet training went up from 16 hours to 20, extended order drill from 6 to 8 hours, grenades from 8 to 12, and tactical training of individual soldiers from 20 hours to 31 hours.
Despite how Dad had remembered it, additional training in combat skills replaced what had been cut from earlier training protocols. Furthermore, these changes were made, not due to manpower shortages as Dad remembered, but rather, due to the establishment of six weeks of common branch training at all replacement training centers — the sort of center at which my Dad was training men.
So, contrary to Dad’s recollections, the men he trained and rushed to the coast during the Battle of the Bulge, were trained, if not better, as well as those who had fought a year earlier in Africa, the south of France, or the troops who landed in northern France after the initial D-Day landing.
Oral history is a funny beast — it can provide some great insights. We, as historians, must recognize that oral histories represent a single point of view, however.
In my Dad’s case, he was just a First Sergeant training replacements. The Chief of Staff did not consult him on changes to the training protocol. So, much like most soldiers who are not “in the know,” Dad added a couple of clues together to reach a conclusion that supported the way he felt. And while it was true he trained and rushed replacements during the Bulge, it wasn’t necessarily for the reasons he had concluded.
Regardless, the casualty reports that Dad received a few months after the Battle of the Bulge were real. And though undeserved, that “critical shortage” resulted in a guilt he carried for the rest of his life.
Preserve the Memories,
You may also enjoy:
*As an Amazon Associate, Military Trader / Military Vehicles earns from qualifying purchases.