This tour, with the Dickinson family, also included sites in the ‘Island’ (between Nijmegen and Arnhem) and elsewhere, where Gunner Frank Dickinson of the 61st Field Regiment fought in 1944/5.
An ambitious tour, as the Bulge alone is a hundred square miles. But both battles feature the same Allied failing – complacency (illustrated by the Des Moines Register cartoon above). Before Arnhem – Monty’s uncharacteristic gamble to dash across the Rhine – the hubris that Germany’s forces were beaten was fostered by the speed of our advance from Normandy the previous months. Before the Bulge, the Americans deemed it impossible to attack through the Ardennes in winter, impossible for Hitler to create new panzer armies; impossible for Allied Intelligence not to have heard through Ultra of an impending offensive. Impossible for Hitler to do anything so barmy as to fritter away the means of defending the Reich from the Soviet hordes. No one considered it remotely possible that he would attempt to reach the Meuse and then Antwerp, without air cover or fuel. But Hitler was impetuous and illogical.
Arnhem bridge, the north end where John Frost’s Paras were surrounded, has nothing left of the wartime buildings. But elsewhere much is the same. The Hartenstein Hotel (Gen. Urquhart’s HQ), for instance, which is now a good(ish) museum (but with tiresome ‘immersive’ stuff). We spent some time looking for the famous pit where the 3-inch mortar team were filmed near the hotel. Some might find it anorakish to look for a hole in the ground. Some might be right.
What also links Arnhem and the Bulge is 101 Airborne. And EASY Company of Band of Brothers fame. Martin Dickinson is a devotee of both book and series. We made sense of the Crossroads episode by finding the location near Driel. Major Winters, the Easy Coy’s heroic commander wrote – ‘I had never been so pumped up in my life.’ All was slow motion. ‘It wasn’t necessary to take an aimed shot. I simply shot from the hip. That shot startled the entire [enemy] company and they started to rise and turn toward me en masse. After killing the sentry, I simply pivoted to my right and kept firing right into that solid mass of troops.’ We photographed each other at the Schoonderlogt estate, south of Arnhem, in the gateway where Winters posed for the camera. A little tacky of us perhaps, but necessary.
Monty called Arnhem ‘90% successful’. Absurd. It failed in its mission. At the end we had possession of a useless and vulnerable piece of land going nowhere. The Germans wreaked terrible vengeance on the Dutch. As they did on the Belgians in the Ardennes, because they were in the way or because the soldiers (not always SS) were simply careless of human life. It is significant that the names of Mohnke, Dietrich and Peiper crop up wherever murder occurs. Peiper’s route towards the Meuse was littered with atrocities, of which the Malmedy massacre is the most famous. He stuttered to a halt at La Gleize, where, after the battle, a Tiger 2 was ‘bought’ by a local for a bottle of cognac from a US engineer about to tow it away. [Peiper ended his days in France, where he’d bought a house. Unwisely as it turned out. He was murdered.]
Martin talked us through the story of Easy Coy at Foy – where two-man foxholes can still be seen in the woods (now fenced in – ticket available at the Bastogne War Museum). The action at Foy is a microcosm of war, and men’s reaction to it. In the attack on the village, Easy’s then company commander, Lieut. Norman Dike (known unflatteringly as ‘Foxhole Norman’) appeared to freeze. ‘He fell apart’ his sergeant said. Winters, now battalion CO, immediately replaced him with a platoon commander, Speirs, who performed brilliantly. One witness said Dike had been wounded. Perhaps. Although Dike had a reputation for poor leadership, he had previously won two bronze stars. Lord Moran, Churchill’s doctor, once famously said that courage is capital, not income. You run out of it. Dike, in that moment of crisis when he needed to lead by example, failed. He ran out of courage. Speirs did not.
The Bulge is an enormous battlefield and if you want to see everything – dragon’s teeth, memorials, cemeteries, museums, tanks and key bridges – you can’t… But you can grasp the enormity of Hitler’s ambition by driving its narrow roads through the endless forests.
Monty gets a bad press in most American books. His crass boasting that he saved their bacon – and that GIs were just fine ‘if properly led’ (by him of course) – deserves every censure. But he reacted promptly to secure the Meuse, and to help ensure the enemy’s destruction at Celles.
The ‘interesting little battle’ (as Monty called it) cost 20,000 US dead. Americans won the Battle of the Bulge. Their defence of Bastogne, St Vith and Rochefort, and Patton’s inspired charge north, are rightly legendary.
The infantry win wars, and take most casualties. But without artillery they would not prevail. Gunner Frank Dickinson was a British soldier who ‘did his bit’ and never complained or spoke about it afterwards. He saw things he wished he hadn’t and remembered things he cherished, like the bagpipes of the Black Watch. He survived. One who didn’t, but whose grave we saw at Oosterbeek CWG Cemetery in Arnhem was F/L David Lord VC. His citation reads: ‘Flying his Dakota through intense enemy anti-aircraft fire he was twice hit and had one engine burning. He managed to drop his supplies, but at the end of the run found that there were two containers remaining. Although he knew that one of his wings might collapse at any moment he nevertheless made a second run to drop the last supplies, then ordered his crew to bail out. A few seconds later the Dakota crashed in flames…’ Urquhart wrote: ’We were spellbound and speechless … I daresay there is not a survivor of Arnhem who will ever forget, or want to forget, the courage we were privileged to witness.’ Such men, like Dick Winters and Lt-Col. John Frost, are exceptional. But Gunner Dickinsons are what the army depends on, dogged, brave soldiers in unfancy regiments descended from the yeomen of yesterday, the sort you hear in Shakespeare – or Kipling: ‘We aren’t no thin red ’eroes, nor we aren’t no black-guards too.’ Dr Johnson wrote that – ‘Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier.’ I declined to join the British army because I found the uniform uncomfortable. As I had dual citizenship, I was called up by the US army in 1968 for Vietnam. I declined to serve and renounced my citizenship. The Vice Consul at the embassy in London called me a ‘milksop’. Yes, I said, but a live one.