Battle of the Bulge road trip
This historical road trip takes us back to largest and bloodiest battle the Americans fought in World War II. The Battle of the Bulge was the last major German offensive toward the end of World War II. The operation with code name Wacht am Rhein was planned by Hitler himself and would slow the allied advance on the Western front severely if carried out successfully. The plan was to penetrate the weak American defenses in the Belgian Ardennes forest and to capture the bridges over the river Meuse. With the bridges secured, the German army would recapture the port of Antwerp and split the Allied front in two, crippling their supply routes. While the offensive, aided by a dense fog, seemed successful at first, fierce American resistance and improving weather conditions stopped the German advance in January 1945.
The trip will take us to Belgium along the invasion route of the German 6th Panzer army and will retrace the steps of their spearhead division, lead by SS Obersturmbannführer (Lieutenant Colonel) Joachim Peiper.
American war cemetery at Henri-Chapelle
Our starting point is the American war cemetery and memorial at Henri-Chapelle, near Liège. This cemetery contains the graves of 7,992 American soldiers who died on the Western Front. The cemetery is open daily to the public from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm except December 25 and January 1. Because it is administered by the US government, it is also open on Belgian holidays. There is also a visitors’ building with a description of the American army movements on the Western Front. Maps on the wall show their advance towards Germany. When the cemetery is open to the public, a staff member is on duty to answer questions and escort relatives to grave and memorial sites.
As we leave the memorial site, we head South towards the town of Elsenborn. This 40km long route takes us trough the High Fens, the largest nature reserve in Belgium. This area is great for outdoor activities such as trekking or mountain biking. A wooden walking path has been built here to allow you to walk over the swamps and enjoy the special environment. A must-do if you have the time!
The Elsenborn Ridge formed the Northern shoulder of the Battle of the Bulge offensive. The German attacks in the north fared badly because of unexpectedly fierce resistance by the U.S. 2nd and 99th Infantry Divisions. On the first day of the offensive, an entire German battalion of 500 men was held up for 10 hours at the nearby small village of Lanzerath, which was only defended by the 18-man Intelligence and Reconnaissance Platoon from the 99th Infantry Division along with four Forward Air Controllers. Due to this heavy resistance on the Ridge, Peiper decided to break trough the Allied lines to the West to go around the defenses.
The military camp of Elsenborn is still in use by the Belgian military. Inside the camp you can visit the Truschbaum Museum, which shows the rich history of this 100 year old artillery camp. The museum has also a large section dedicated to the Battle of the Bulge. Opening hours are from Monday till Thursday : 09.00-12.00 AM and 01.00-04.00 PM, with the last entry 45 minutes before closing time. The entry is free, but the museum is located inside the military base so be sure to have your id-card or passport with you to identify yourself at the guard house of the camp.
The Malmedy Massacre
As Peiper an his men pushed further to the West, they reached the hamlet of Baugnez when they encountered elements of the 285th US Field Artillery Observation Battalion, After a short battle the lightly armed Americans surrendered. They were disarmed and sent to stand in a field near the crossroads under light guard. About fifteen minutes after Peiper's advance guard passed through, the main body of the SS force arrived. These soldiers suddenly opened fire on the prisoners. 84 of the POWs were murdered here.
After the war, a monument was erected at the crossroads. In memory of the massacre the “Baugnez 44 Historical Center” has been built on the site of the actual massacre, just 100m away from the crossroads. This modern museum will guide you trough the winter of 1944-1945 with its superb audio guide.
The fighting continued and, by the evening, the spearhead had pushed north to engage the U.S. 99th Infantry Division, and Kampfgruppe Peiper arrived in front of Stavelot. Peiper attacked Stavelot on 18 December but was unable to capture the town before the Americans evacuated a large fuel depot.
Not wanting to lose more time, Peiper rushed an advance group toward the vital bridge at Trois-Ponts, leaving the bulk of his strength in Stavelot. When they reached it, retreating U.S. engineers blew it up in their faces. The Kampfgruppe detoured north towards the village of La Gleize. Of the two bridges now remaining between Kampfgruppe Peiper and the Meuse, the bridge over the Lienne was blown by the Americans as the Germans approached. Peiper headed further West and captured Stoumont. In the mean time, the Americans were bringing up strong reinforcements from Spa. They recaptured Stoumont and Peiper pulled back to La Gleize into defensive positions. The Germans were now out of fuel, food and ammunition. When a resupply mission went badly and the Germans faced the prospect of being cut off, Peiper decided to retreat back to the Siegfried line, leaving all vehicles behind.
As we retrace Peipers route from Baugnez to La Gleize, we’ll encounter some great, winding roads. The scenery of the Ardennes forest is a pleasure to drive trough. When arriving in La Gleize, you immediately see the King Tiger tank on the town square. This heavy tank of 69 tons was the biggest tank of WWII and was unrivaled on the battlefield. Its front armor is 15 to 20 cm thick and could not be penetrated by regular American weapons. This vehicle was left behind by the Germans when they left La Gleize. As the Americans recaptured La Gleize, they performed some tests on the tank to see how strong it really was. 4 Bazooka rounds were fired on the front of the tank from close range, but none of them could penetrate the sloped armor. These bazooka traces are still visible today.
After the war, the King Tiger would be towed to a scrap yard like every other military vehicle that was left behind. A local lady saved the tank by trading it for a bottle of cognac. The tank was restored with a new gun barrel (the original was destroyed by the Germans when leaving the vehicle behind) and with dummy exhaust pipes and placed on the town square, where it can be seen today. There is a December 44 museum next to the tiger with lots of information about the battles in and around La Gleize. The personal map holder of Peiper can be seen here, as well as a german remote-controlled mini-tank, the Goliath.
American war cemetery at Henri-Chapelle
Adress: Rue du Mémorial Americaine, 4852 Plombières, Belgium
Opening hours: Daily from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm except December 25 and January 1
Adress: Lager Elsenborn camp, 4750 Bütgenbach, Belgium
Opening hours: From Monday till Thursday : 09.00-12.00 AM and 01.00-04.00 PM, last entry 45 minutes before closing time!
Baugnez 44 Historical Center
Adress: Route de Luxembourg 10, 4960 Malmedy, Belgium
Opening hours: Daily from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm except Mondays outside school holidays, December 25 and January 1
Price: € 7,50
December 44 Historical Museum
Adress: rue de l'église 7, 4987 La Gleize – Stoumont, Belgium
Opening hours: From March 1st through November 21st: Every day from 10 am to 6 pm; From November 22nd through February 28th: open during vacations, week-ends and holidays
Price: € 5