Battle of the Bulge Photoguide II

(Originally published – 12/12/2009)
(OrThis photoguide covers the ‘Champs’ scenario in the Rapid Fire ‘Battle of the Bulge’ book. Refer to the scenario and the Battle Map on pages 33 – 37.

ChampsThe last and most determined attempt by German forces to break through the American cordon protecting Bastogne, the battle for Champs was fought on Christmas Day 1944 across snow-covered fields and in freezing conditions. I visited the battlefield for a second time in February 2005 when the conditions pretty much matched those experienced by the troops of both sides in 1944.

Typical of the stone-built villages that surround Bastogne, Champs lies in undulating terrain broken by scattered stands or small forests of pine trees. The first shot below is the one that heads the scenario in the book. You can see that the old centre of the village – ruined in the fighting but re-built in traditional style after the war like many in the Ardennes – lies in a dip. The forest on the skyline is the one located south west of Champs on the Battle Map.

Spinning round 180 degrees, the photo below shows the defender’s view looking northwards and Mrs M in our trusty hire car (who needs a 4 x 4 in snow?). Note the typical Ardennes barbed wire fences on the left. These have remained fundamentally unchanged since W. W. II and in heavy snow they would have added to the temptation for infantry to use roads as much as possible. The 1st and then 2nd Battalions of 77th Volksgrenadier Regiment advanced towards the camera, ostensibly on quite a broad front, but it is easy to see how this attack may have become channelled and thus easier for 502nd Airborne Regiment’s A company to hold off before reinforcements arrived from B Company who were deployed further down the road to Hemroulle.

Follow this road for a short while and you reach the top edge of the Battle Map and – in reality – see this present day view. The houses in the shot below are post-war additions, but the sharp bends and the slope down towards the village of Givry were there in 1944. General Kokott’s 77th Volksgrenadier Regiment formed up in Givry and then – in the early morning darkness – advanced uphill towards Champs as depicted in the model shot on page 34 of the RF Battle of the Bulge book.

We now move south, down to the minor crossroads between Champs and Hemroulle and looking westwards in the direction from which Kampfgruppe Maucke launched its main attack. The tree-lined track is the short ‘dead end’ shown on the map and 327th Glider Infantry Regiment was defending the ridge that lies beyond. On the Champs battle map the terrain is necessarily a ‘cartoon’ version of the real thing, with features such as woods and houses enlarged and distances reduced. I’ve tried to represent the significant cover that the lines of trees would have represented by placing a narrow deciduous wood to the south of the track. A photograph taken after the battle (see page in 343 in Jean Pallud’s epic ‘Battle of the Bulge. Then and Now’) shows the trees – albeit slightly smaller – were definitely there in 1944.

Kampfgruppe Maucke’s objective was to break through to Bastogne and to achieve that it had to reach the road that led to the town through Champs and Hemroulle. In fact Maucke split his force, with most of the tanks and panzergrenadiers directed towards Hemroulle and the rest towards Champs to attack the US Paras defending the village from the rear. Below is the view a German attacker from the former group might have seen through his tank periscope. In Battle Map terms it’s taken from the end of the short track and facing towards Hemroulle. The buildings you can see are part of a farm, with Hemroulle beyond them in the distance. The sparse line of trees to the left marks the edge of the road that runs south from Champs towards Bastogne. Behind is the edge of the denser woodland where the airborne troops and 2 tank destroyers made their final stand, successfully ambushing a line of Pz IVs and assault guns as they headed down the road. The official history suggests that this was after the tanks had tried and failed to break through Hemroulle and were heading north, back down the road, to help capture Champs. The above mentioned photo in Jean Pallud’s book seems to bear this out, showing knocked out German AFVs facing towards Champs.

This shot also gives some idea of what faced both sides on Christmas morning 1944. The Glider Infantry defenders were huddled in freezing foxholes they’d probably had to ‘dig’ with explosives. The attackers had the advantage of few obstacles to obstruct their tanks and assault guns, but they had to advance over open fields where they stood out like sore thumbs against the snow.

If we turn anticlockwise a few degrees and look eastwards back down the track you can see that this might have offered a more attractive route to the road, marked in the next photo by our parked car in the middle distance. In accounts of the battle some of Maucke’s tanks are described as using a cart track on their approach to the Champs – Hemroulle road and this may well be it. Follow the road seen disappearing into the distance and you reach the US 502nd Parachute Regiment’s HQ at Chateau Rolley.

The Chateau is pictured in the Champs scenario, but the view below also shows the entrance, via a gateway through surrounding outbuildings. In the event, when word came that panzers had been spotted nearby the CO – Lieutenant Colonel Chappuis – ordered all the HQ personnel bar himself and two others to leave the Chateau and take up defensive positions outside. In common with the rest of the units defending the Bastogne perimeter during the siege, HQs as well as artillery positions and supply dumps were perilously close to the front and vulnerable to sudden attacks by armour or infiltrating infantry. In this area it included the 155mm guns of 755th Field Artillery Battalion, one battery of which is included in the scenario’s US orbat. After-action reports describe how the guns were unable to fire on the German tanks moving through their positions because they were too close. The gunners instead manned machine guns to take on the attackers.

The American airborne troops were desperate to stop the Germans reaching Hemroulle. The shot of the village below is the one featured in our ‘Bulge’ book. It was taken from the middle of the road on the Bastogne-side of the village and you can see the sharp bends have been ‘ironed’ out in the scaling down process for the Battle Map.  If this village had been captured there was precious little between the German forces and the town centre 2 miles away. Not only that, but the headquarters of 101st Airborne Division was situated at the point where this road entered Bastogne, at the old Belgian Army Heintz Barracks. The barracks are pictured below, still under military control and substantially unchanged since General McAuliffe – the 101st’s artillery commander – masterminded the defence of Bastogne.

In the end the battle for Champs was an unmitigated disaster for the German besiegers. It was also a disaster for Bastogne, as the enemy forces preceded the attack with 2 nights of bombing by low-flying JU 88s, ostensibly to soft up the defences. This destroyed many buildings that had survived the constant artillery fire, but more importantly killed many civilians and wounded US troops being treated in one of the town’s churches – an incident portrayed in the TV series ‘Band of Brothers’.