Touring the Schnee Eifel battlefield led to several discoveries
by Harold Ratzburg
In my lifetime, I have been very fortunate to be able to pursue my interest in the military and anything connected to it, such as collecting the vehicles and equipment and being able to visit some of the old battlefields of the Civil War and World Wars I and II. I won’t live long enough to visit them all, but I wish I could!
One of the most interesting areas I have visited is located in the Ardennes, a forested region in Belgium where the Battle of the Bulge (as it was called by the Americans) was fought. Of particular interest was the Schnee Eifel, a long ridge running north to south where American troops dug in at the top, facing the German troops dug in to the east of them.
On December 16, 1944, those German troops charged up the slopes and around the ends of the ridge to surround the 106th Infantry Division. After some severe battles, the Americans surrendered to the Germans. About 7,000 American troops marched off into captivity.
I have had the opportunity to visit the Schnee Eifel battleground and the surrounding Battle of the Bulge area on four separate adventures. It continues to be one of my historic fascinations.
My first visit came about when a friend and I went on a WWII battlefield tour run by Northstar Tours. The owner of the touring company was Ray Cowdery (the same Ray Cowdery who wrote the two definitive volumes on the WWII Jeep, The All American Wonder).I will testify that Ray was as good a tour company operator and guide as he is a writer of jeep books and many others. In all, I went on three different tours of the European WWII with Ray and his wife Josephine. They were great.
But let’s get back to the Schnee Eifel.
On the first tour, we left the bus to walk back into the forest alongside of a row of concrete “dragons teeth” (tank traps) that were remains of the German “West Wall.”When we got back into the forest, wecould see some of the remains of the battlefield debris. I found a part for a jeep engine, a lot of communication wire, a piece of a rusted ammo can, and other odds and ends laying around on the ground and in the overgrown remains of old foxholes. I think this was an area where buses parked frequently to give people a chance to wander back into the woods, so the area was pretty well picked-over, but very interesting, nevertheless.
My second visit to the Schnee Eifel was about 4 years later in 1986, with my new son-in-law, Gregg. He acted as my driver while I guided him using my Battle of the Bulge edition of After the Battle.
This time, we found a small road leading up to and along the top of the ridge. About 4 miles along the road through the woods, we came upon a fenced-in US Army base that I believe was a radio or radar base. Remember, it was 1986, and the Cold War with Russia was a very real thing! After convincing the guard that we were not Russian spies, we parked the car near the gate and crossed the road. Then, wefollowed a line of telephone wires back into the forest. The area had been heavily shelled in 1944, and I’m sure not too many trees were left standing or undamaged. But forty-two years had passed since the shelling. The forest had reestablished itself. Regardless, we could still see depressions caused by the shell fire as well as shallow foxholes and dug-outs that the GI’s had made during the war.
Near one of the foxholes, I uncovered a hole about a foot across (I don’t remember how deep) that as filled with clips of loaded M1 Garand ammunition. Some of the clips and shells looked brand new while othersshowed signs of heavy rusting and corrosion. There must have been fifty or more clips left there after the GIs took off!
The temptation to pick them up and take some along for souvenirs was great, but what do you do with a load of ammunition in a foreign country where stuff like that is tightly controlled? So, we just had to walk away from it.
A WALK IN THE WOODS
A little farther into the woods, in a more-or-less cleared spot, I came upon a genuine, honest-to-goodness, real, live WWII German shell! I eagerly picked it up to take a closer look. It was badly rusted, but I could see the electronic fuse and other materiel inside before it occurred to me — “Hey, you dumb jerk! You have a touchy, badly deteriorated German 88mm shell in your hands that could blow you to Kingdom Come!” After due consideration, I very gently eased it back down to the ground and tip-toed away — still in one piece.
Poking around in an old foxhole turned up a sterling silver medal bar that some GI had lost. The bar was the kind that a GI could hang below his marksmanship badge to signify his skill with a Browning Automatic Rifle. When you find stuff like that, your imagination starts working to visualize who the man was that occupied this foxhole years ago and whether or not he survived. It is the kind of stuff that keeps us history buffs going.
Farther back in the woods, we came upon a row of low concrete bunkers that were part of Germany’s “West Wall.” Every one of them had been blown up, so they were no longer usable.It was interesting to speculate on how much explosives had to be used to do so much damage, but somebody really knew their business about blowing things up to take them out as completely as they did.
A few years later, I made my third visit to the area. I was exploring the possibility of becoming a tour group leader. I recruited two couples and acted as the leader of the pack to visit WWII sites in Europe. Our visit to the Schnee Eifel was a short one, mainly consisting of walking to the bunkers and taking a general look of the area. We did try to locate that hole full of M1 Garand bullets but had no success. That forest just grew too fast!
The fourth trip came about when we took our immediate family to visit the “old country.” I asked my grandson, Brian, if there was anything that he would especially like to see. To my surprise, he said he would like to visit the Battle of the Bulge area and Dachau Concentration Camp. Here was my own grandson, a 13-year-old kid, who was interested in WWII history like me! We took a road trip from Germany up to Belgium and back onto the Schnee Eifel.
It was a rainy day, but we followed the now familiar road until we came to the US Army base. By this time, the Cold War was over and the base had been abandoned. It was secured by a cyclone fence and the gates were all locked and boasted “No Trespassing” signs. Though tempting, we did not crawl through a hole in the fence that we found. We were too worried about the consequences if we were caught.
The foxholes and shell holes were still there, though there was a lot of evidence of other collectors, probably with metal detectors, who had combed through the area. In one hole, (not the original hole with all the bullets), I found another pile of M1 ammo that a previous collector had unearthed. Also on the ground, I found a US GI axe head that had been blown apart by shell fire in 1944. I can’t imagine the force of an explosion that would shatter an axe head into pieces, or how that must have felt to a soldier in a close-by foxhole.
Digging into the side of another foxhole, my grandson came up with some canvas pieces that were the remains of part of a cartridge belt. He also found the wire hook and canvas of a canteen carrier. That pretty much “made our day,” so we packed up the axe head, a bunch of the cartridges, a piece of barbed wire, and the remains of the cartridge belt and canteen before we headed out for our hotel in Bastogne.
On the way out, Brian noticed something and hollered, “Stop! I think there is a bunker over there.”I had driven past this point a number of times but never noticed it before because it was so heavily overgrown. We went to explore and found a blown-apart bunker that must have been the “mother of all the other bunkers” we had seen back in another part of the woods. That bunker must have been at least 40 feet square. The wall was at least three feet thick. The roof was about four feet thick and heavily reenforced with iron bars. Unfortunately, the engineers who blew up the bunker did such a good job of it, that the only way into the bunker was on your belly through a small opening — in the dark and wet forest surroundings, that did not really interest us very much! So, we left. That was my last visit to the Schnee Eifel.
And this is the end of this story for now.How we got the relics back to the US of A is another story for another time!