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US Army

Christmas on the Meuse River 1944

Christmas on the Meuse River 1944
 
Company “A” of the 56th Armored Engineer Battalion left Sissonne Barracks in France on December 24, 1944, arriving at Charleville-Meziere on the Meuse River that same day.  The Headquarters Platoon bivouacked in a city park.  Across the street to the north was the XX Corps Headquarters, located in a large building that bore the outward appearance of a church.  There was a lot of activity going on, which we observed from a comfortable distance.  I can recall everyone in uniform snapping to attention when a command car carrying the Corps Commander, General Walton Walker, drove up and stopped in front of the building.  The general dismounted, and officiously strutted across the walkway, up the steps, and disappeared into the building.  I was amused to note that most everyone standing at attention was at least a head taller than the general. In retrospect, I am sure that during that critical point in time.  General Walker was carrying a tremendous burden on his shoulders. 
 
Christmas day was spent in vehicle maintenance and cleaning equipment.  The 500 mile forced march across France had taken a toll on the vehicles, so the mechanics were kept busy. We were fortunate mat our mobile kitchen and supply trucks were close at hand, so we enjoyed a hot roast turkey dinner with all the trimmings.  The other platoons had dispersed along the Meuse River, where they were guarding bridges, and preparing them for demolition, if that were to become necessary.  The First Platoon was sent to Sedan, where it was assigned to construct and guard road blocks at three Meuse River bridges.  Lucky for them, they were invited to Christmas dinner at the nearby 107th Field Evacuation Hospital.  At that point in time, there were few patients in the hospital; a situation would soon change dramatically. 
 
The Second Platoon was dispersed at bridges along a rural section of the Meuse River between Meziere and Givet, where the 63rd Armored Infantry Battalion occupied defensive positions.  The Second Platoon enjoyed Christmas dinner provided by the 63rd.  Unfortunately, by the time it reached the troops at the more remote bridge sites, they were served cold turkey.  The Third Platoon guarded a railroad bridge and highway intersections in and near Charleville, so they enjoyed a hot turkey dinner from our own mobile kitchen. 
 
Christmas night brought our first experience with “Bed Check Charlie.”  “Charlie” was an aging Stuka dive bomber, which we came to expect during each night, as he made reconnaissance flights over the allied positions.  He customarily also dropped a single bomb.  I was still suffering from several days with little or no sleep, and when Charlie arrived over the city, I was peacefully asleep in my bedroll, laid out next to our Headquarters half-track.  I remember hearing the irregular sputtering sound of Charlie’s motor, but I was so tired, I just rolled over closer to the half-track, expecting to go back to sleep.  On the far side of the city park, all windows had blackout curtains, except for one.  Charlie circled toward it, and dropped his bomb.  Fortunately for us, it missed, but exploded about a block away with a huge flash and roar.  Charlie then went away, the single light in the window went out, and I went back to sleep. 
 
On the next night, December 26, I was assigned to accompany Lieutenant Leo Tobe, Leader of our 2nd Platoon, and his driver, T/5 Ross Daroch, on a 90 mile reconnaissance of roads and bridges along the west bank of the Meuse River from Givet north to Dinant and Namur, in Belgium.  It was a bright moonlight night, and the trip was quite an adventure. All units had been alerted that groups of German saboteurs, traveling in American vehicles, and wearing American uniforms were operating in the Meuse River area.  It was known that they were creating confusion by altering road signs, cutting communication wires, and misdirecting troops.  They also had achieved some success in stretching guillotine wires across roadways at neck height for jeep drivers and passengers.  There were reports of soldiers being decapitated by these insidious devices.  American ingenuity had responded, and already most jeeps had notched vertical angle irons welded to the front bumpers.  When encountering a near invisible guillotine wire, the wire would be caught in the notched angle iron, and was severed before it could injure the vehicle occupants. 
 
On that crisp cold moonlight night, the villages and rural scenes along the Meuse River were beautiful.  On this night after Christmas, they reminded me of Christmas Card scenes.  There was no snow, but the ground sparkled with frost.  The villages were all unlit, with no civilians to be seen. Except for a few barking dogs, the night was totally quiet. It was hard to realize that across the shimmering moonlit river, and only a few miles away, a determined enemy was striving to bring war to this quiet and peaceful place.  At frequent intervals along our route of travel, we encountered and were challenged by units that were manning road blocks.  Most of the guarding soldiers were from rear echelon service and supply units.  We had to prove that we were not saboteurs.  We exchanged passwords, answered many questions, m return we responded to questions about the whereabouts of the enemy, that we received from the worried soldiers that challenged us.  I was seated in the right front seat of the jeep, with a submachine gun on my lap.  Lieutenant Tobe occupied the back seat.  At one check point, a nervous guard saw the glint of my gun barrel reflected in the moonlight.  With his gun pointed directly at me, he froze in terror.  My gun also pointed directly at him.  Lieutenant Tobe recognized the crisis, and by talking in a calm and quiet voice, was able to calm the frightened soldier, and reassure him that we were friendly. 
 
Near Namur, we encountered some British troops that had just moved into positions along the Meuse River.  They seemed more casual than the Americans that manned the other road blocks. Some weeks later, after the Battle of the Bulge was over, I was surprised to hear that the British’s were still occupying those same positions west of the Meuse.  I also learned that while the Americans suffered over 19,000 fatalities in the battle, the British lost a total of 200 soldiers killed in action.  To me, those statistics indicate that Field Marshall Montgomery, in command of the north flank of the “Bulge,” used his prerogative to send the American troops under his command into harm’s way.  Most of his own forces remained in protected defensive positions, well beyond the reach of German armor and artillery.
 
The information gained on that nighttime Meuse River reconnaissance was never used, as the German attack was stemmed before it could reach the river. On December 29th, the 11th Armored Division was relieved from the Meuse River defense line, and was redeployed in Belgium, on the south flank of the Bulge, a few miles southwest of Bastogne.
 
Source: The Bulge Bugle November 2012
By T/5 Daniel W. O'BRIEN

 

"A" Company

 

56th Armored Engineer Bn

 

11th Armored Division

Campaigns

Battle of the Bulge,

Belgium